Culture wars part 3: clashes, conflict and culture
In this week’s edition of Culture Wars, we explore hot-headedness, disagreements and fall-outs, and why culture can be at the heart of many battles we have at work.
Guess what? Humans love to disagree. Whether it’s choosing which colour to paint a wall or going to war with another nation, it’s in our blood to go head-to-head with our fellow man or woman. But being argumentative, aggressive little apes isn’t conducive to a successful workplace.
What causes conflict?
When it comes to making money together, we try our best to put any issues aside and form into little tribes (‘companies’) and focus our efforts instead on making / selling stuff / services.
But even though we’re all on the same side, we still want to grab each other by the shoulders and shake each other until the other person agrees from time to time. But why?
Well, work pressure is a pretty good fire-lighter for a good barney. If we’re feeling like we aren’t performing, we might start snapping at our colleagues. Competitiveness is also an easy way to get your people going at each other's throats.
How can culture compound conflict?
Ever watched the Apprentice? Yes, I understand, it’s television, but let’s just look at some of the ‘perceived realities’ that pepper the business world. Everyone has to be cut-throat: work is a competition. There’s an undying desire to impress the boss, in this case Lord Sugar. The candidates will fight tooth and nail and throw each other under the bus at every turn.
Yes, it’s a fantasy scenario, but it’s still a ‘culture’. There are organisations out there that thrive on these behaviours, believing that explosive conflict gets their teams where they need to be.
And fair enough, if they think it works, and their employees are completely on board with arguing, competitiveness, and a lack of real cohesion.
But translate these behaviours to your average firm, where this kind of culture isn’t supported, and the problems begin.
A lack of true culture can let those who thrive on being the alpha male or female, or who get the best out of their work by being direct, dominate the conversation and make it difficult for others with more reserved working styles to thrive.
What can I do about conflict?
In all honesty, the best practice is to accept conflict will always exist, and turn it into ‘healthy conflict’.
Suppressing conflict and therefore healthy debate leads to what is known as artificial harmony. You’re never going to stop people from disagreeing, but what you may see is those who do disagree staying quiet, rather than rocking the boat.
Your job as a leader is to strike a balance. Those who are more than ready to disagree or air their opinions, often aggressively, need the tools and hard boundaries that help them to channel their desire to be the best.
Those who would rather stay quiet to avoid confrontation need to have the right medium to get their disagreements out in public, as well as the emotional support to overcome things like shyness, reservation or sheer terror at going head-to-head with the office foghorn. And this comes down to identifying preferences.
You may have already heard of MBTI. If you haven’t, it's an analysis tool that offers an invaluable way to identify personality preferences and how these could play out at work. For those of you who know your MBTI personality type, it's the differences between the last two letters of your type that are most likely to cause the conflict.
You can then at least identify whether two people with similar or totally different MBTI profiles will be more susceptible to going head to head, or if they’d be likely to live in artificial harmony, or if one will dominate the other. It’s also extremely useful in building high-performing teams, and can be a great anchor point at the centre of an open and honest culture.
Myers Briggs also have the TKI conflict resolution model which identifies alternative conflict styles and it helps people reframe and defuse conflict.
MBTI’s personality types help organisations to establish preferences, which can lead to cultural improvements.
Another good idea is to establish what is and what isn’t acceptable when it comes to conflict. Quite naturally, humans go into defence mode when they are questioned or someone disagrees with them, and you’re only ever a few steps away from damaging relationships or launching personal attacks on the person who has dared to question you. Or you could stay quiet, and become passive aggressive or even non-compliant.
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Get all of these behaviours out in the open, and draw some lines in the sand. Maybe it’s ok to raise voice slightly if you feel passionate, but shouting at each other is a solid no. Your teams may be ok with heated debate, but it should always be about the topic, never about the other person’s abilities or behaviours.
Aggressive language, swearing, silence, a shift in body language and facial expressions should also be taken into consideration. These actions may be acceptable for some and not for others, quickly turning a debate into an argument.
The big takeaway
By simply establishing the rules and boundaries and making it absolutely fine for everyone to challenge each other at the right time, in the right manner, in the right environment, you can turn potentially explosive situations into fantastic opportunities to question norms and look for continuous improvement. Encourage conversation and make it absolutely ok for people to be both comfortable and uncomfortable with conflict.
For some leaders, it needs to start with them. Aggressive behaviour, autocracy and pressure are all still very prevalent, and this breeds a negative culture, and makes it ok for reports to pass negative conflict along the line. It starts at the top: if you can set your own conflict rules and live by them, then it makes it hundreds of times easier for your teams to mirror your approach to conflict and apply it to their colleagues.