Workplace Culture

A Collective Concept for Conflict Resolution

By Samantha Slade

May. 28, 2019

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All kinds of personal issues at work escalate into conflicts, and we usually resolve them privately.

Making the process public is a recipe for awkward, messy feelings, isn’t it?

Maybe not.

My consulting firm recently experimented with working through a conflict between two staff members in a collective way. That positive experience, along with insights from our culture work with clients and other research suggests we need to rethink the way we resolve interpersonal clashes in the workplace. In particular, there are four reasons why in many cases we should shift to collective conflict resolution.

And when we do, we help our organizations “go horizontal” — move toward non-hierarchical cultures that I and others see as the future of work.

The four reasons for resolving conflicts publicly are:

1. People feel safer to communicate. How can you feel safer with a bunch of people observing you? Because individuals can stretch truths and even (ouch) sometimes full-out lie. When there are witnesses, those behaviors are less likely. One of my colleagues who has experimented with a group approach to conflict resolution puts it this way: “Having witnesses helps me work my way through my emotions and communicate in the most precise and exact way I can.”

2. Conflict is usually wider than the pair being mediated. When we are upset with a situation we often talk about it to others. This usually leads to a one-sided perspective and some emotional offloading. If I go into a private room and experience a successful mediation process, those people who have been pulled into the conflict are still feeling it. The conflict still exists in others and can linger and return, like hot coals. If we acknowledge that conflict is in the system, we should invite those involved in the system to witness the untangling of it. That puts out the conflict “out” properly.

3. When a tension gets untangled it usually ends with solutions. If a conflict is settled privately it puts a lot of pressure on those in the situation to handle the follow up on their own. But if the resolution process is public, everyone understands the situation more fully and understands what else must be done. This generates a sense of mutual support. If you aren’t there to witness the untangling, you miss out on creating that help system and feeling shared responsibility thereafter.

4. Well-resolved conflicts can have a bigger societal impact. When people work out differences in a positive way, it can lead to profound change that ripples beyond the individuals involved. Author Diane Musho Hamilton notes that every tension with another person is an opportunity to transform the conflict into “patience, mutual understanding, and creativity.” She continues: “When we use the opportunity, we contribute to the shared endeavor of learning how to live peacefully with each other.”

When we see interpersonal conflicts at work as inevitable, as connected to wider systems and as a chance to cultivate a more nonviolent human race, we start to see why they may not be suited for hidden encounters between just two people. Or two people and a mediator. When quarrels are privately addressed, they not only carry a whiff of shame to them, they are lost opportunities. Why shouldn’t we bring the advantages of the full team to these snags, and allow the team to receive the full benefits of straightening them out — with positive outcomes spreading outward from every individual witnessing the work?

This rippling out gets at how collective conflict resolution helps organizations become more horizontal. By horizontal cultures, I’m referring to workplaces that are characterized by a focus on purpose, by transparency, by employees participating in decision-making and by relationships that are more deeply human than the transactional ones often found in traditional, top-down organizations.

Any two individuals involved in a spat are typically part of a wider social web. Treating the conflict as an opportunity to heal not just their immediate rift but strengthen the broader community reinforces an organization’s commitment to horizontal principles.

And those principles are increasingly vital to success. Hierarchical organizations are proving too slow and stultifying to solve today’s problems. Examples of companies embracing flatter, more participatory structures range from computer chip maker and artificial intelligence leader Nvidia to tomato processor Morning Star to Dutch home health care provider Buurtzorg Nederland. As these and other organizations show, the future of work is in flatter, horizontal cultures.

Publicly resolving conflicts in your organization can help you go horizontal, too.

Samantha Slade is the co-founder of consultancy Percolab and the author of Going Horizontal: Creating a Non-hierarchical Organization, One Practice at a Time.

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