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Conflict management strategies start with psychological safety

Conflict management strategies

Since some white collar work is “akin to chimp rape” and no one communicates all that well, stands to reason we need a lot of conflict management strategies. Oh hey and also: work is largely about relevance and protecting your specific perch, so that’s going to lead to even more conflict.

The traditional approach to conflict management strategies is:

  • Kick it to HR
  • Hire some trainer
  • Bring in some consultant
  • Talk about breathing exercises, etc.

Some of these concepts are moderately effective, but most flop. When they flop, you have people who become six-year co-workers who essentially hate each other, are consistently forced to collaborate, and drag down the teams they get put on. No conflict management strategies here. Rather, it’s just passive aggressive BS to the core. In other words: work for many people.

Let’s hit some new research and some old research on this.

Conflict management strategies and Project Aristotle 

New article from UVA on conflict resolution notes this:

In 2012, Google launched “Project Aristotle,” studying hundreds of Google teams to determine what factors made some thrive while others faltered. One common denominator among high-performing teams was what Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson terms “psychological safety” — confidence that team members can speak up or even make mistakes and still receive support from the team.

Here’s a deep-dive on Project Aristotle, and here’s a paper by Amy Edmonson on psychological safety.

With this background, let’s deep dive.

Back to the relevance argument 

Remember above when I said a lot of work is about wanting to seem relevant? Indeed.

A close cousin of that is not wanting to seem incompetent.

Basically the three worst things that can happen to you in an office, aside from something awful like a shooter, would be:

  • Getting fired
  • Your boss killing you on something
  • A teammate calling you out on something

Alright, now in terms of likelihood … most people get fired at least once-twice. (I have.) Your boss will probably ream you on something at least twice/week, if not more, because that’s how most bosses prefer to manage. Those two are fairly likely, although ideally you won’t get fired every week. That might get challenging.




 

The third one — about teammates calling you out — that happens sometimes, but less. When it does, it stings. There’s no psychological safety in that group. You were thrown together to “collaborate” and “innovate,” and goddamn it, you don’t even know what some of these people do. A few others you want to punch in the mouth. And now they’re calling you out?!?! Where’s my psychological safety, baby?!? Where are my conflict management strategies?

Where are my conflict management strategies, indeed?

Well, we now know we need to create psychological safety. So how do we do that?

  • Train the managers of teams to be more supportive
  • Work with colleagues on co-existing/coping strategies
  • When conflict arises, squash it quickly and with context
  • Give people 3-5 minutes at the beginning of a meeting to “air grievances” if need be
  • Allow people to smoke pot in meetings

The last one was a joke! Made ya look.

We gussy everything up in such bullshit like “We need innovators on Team A!” or “I’m looking for entrepreneurial spirit!” No. Those are just buzzwords, because not everyone on a given team will be innovative. (It would be impossible.) Rather, if you want to achieve goals and feel comfortable working together — the ultimate conflict management strategies — you simply need a supportive, caring psychological environment around the work the team does.

Ted Bauer

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