The Four Areas of Fear of Conflict at Work

In many organizations, the anticipated fear of doing something that might not work when resolving a conflict outweighs the anticipated benefits of taking a risk and resolving a conflict in a new way.

conflict at work

This anticipated fear shows up in four areas.

  • Customer service interactions—these are the ones that involve poor or miscommunication, bad service, a dissatisfied customer, or even a service that doesn’t do what the end-user (i.e. the customer) thought that it would. Conflicts in these areas tend to be the ones whose outcomes are used to define the organization by its external supporters and detractors. They are usually resolved through speed and immediacy flooding the point of contention, followed by organizational silence.
  • Product recall incidents—these are incidents where a product is created, developed, produced, distributed, and marketed in “good faith” but then proves to be defective in some way. Conflicts in these areas tend to focus around a material loss of some kind and are rarely resolved with an apology. They are resolved through litigation, regulation, and in some cases, destruction of the organization.
  • Process innovation failures—this is when a product or service changes in some way and the changes are dissatisfying to the end-user, the seller of the product or service, or the creator of the original product or service. Conflicts in these areas tend to take a long time to manifest and usually begin in the customer service area. They are usually resolved through changing cultures at two steps below the surface level (i.e. firing and hiring) but are rarely resolved thoroughly.
  • Employee disputes and conflicts—these are the most common internal conflicts and occur when visions, values, and goals rub up against each other. They are usually responded to internally through either avoidance, accommodation, or attacking and are rarely resolved thoroughly until employees “move on.”

The Immediate Response to Conflict at Work if Rarely Correct

Many organizations assume that the immediacy of any response in all four of these “dispute” areas equals resolution. The problem “goes away” and then there is silence—from the press, from the customer, from the stakeholders, and from the employees.

conflict at work

This assumption exists because organizations operate at scale. Scale creates degrees of separation between the person impacted by the outcome of the interaction, the incident, the innovation or the conflict, and the person who is “at the top” of the hierarchy in the organization.

As human beings, from the age of tribes to the age of multinational organizations, we have outsourced the resolution of conflicts to third parties—chiefs, in essence—with the expectation that with distance comes freedom from emotional entanglement and rationality in decision making.

When the chief knew everyone in the tribe, this might have been—and may continue to be—true. But when Dunbar’s Number kicks in at scale, and organizations begin to grow, more and more resolution is outsourced to fewer and fewer people who are called to sit in judgment, render a verdict, and not consider the consequences.

The Lie of Conflict At Work and Getting Resolution at Scale

The unspooling of the Industrial Revolution and its outcomes and consequences, at scale, has put to lie, the myth promulgated throughout mass media, mass advertising, mass unionization, and even mass government for the majority of the last century: The individual, whether employee, customer, neighbor or advocate, can get a resolution to the conflict, disagreement, or disappointment at scale from an organization.

conflict at work

All conflicts, interactions, incidents, disturbances, and any other synonyms humans use to describe conflicts and disputes are always interpersonal, and thus can only be resolved at the interpersonal level. But many organizations—schools, nonprofits, businesses, corporations—only function well and “change the world” at scale, rather than in interacting with one person, employee, customer, neighbor or advocate, at a time.

The solution for this is not to prevent organizations from scaling. This is as impossible as canceling biological maturation or natural growth. The deep solution is for the chief to purposefully change attitudes and minds at the individual level through coaching, training, and leading, and then leaving a culture in an organization behind that repeats the vision, mission, values, and goals that they want to see.

This is the real innovation that requires courage at the beginning, the middle, and the end to execute. But many organizations would rather put out burning fires than build a better house in the first place.

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