• Pamela Waltz, PhD

Choosing our response to conflict: Three reasons why it's hard to do.

Research shows that the ability to respond flexibly to conflict is an important predictor of how well people manage conflict in their lives. But response rigidity often prevails. Rather than choosing a situationally-appropriate response, people default to familiar scripts. Here's why and what to do about it.

WHAT IS CONFLICT?

We often think of conflict as an interpersonal process—the emergence of tensions between individuals. And it is. But the root of conflict is individual experience.


Conflict begins when we perceive that we have important differences with someone that are likely to cause our needs, interests, wants, and values to be incompatible with theirs. In response to this potential threat, we experience physiological responses and emotions—an inner tension that motivates us to initiate goal-directed actions to reduce the pressure.


Research and experience show that the actions we take next have important implications for whether conflict will lead to productive or destructive outcomes. For example, we might seek support from others, respectfully discuss differences, force our will, change the subject, or use backchannels to protect our interests without explicitly addressing the conflict.


Although each of these responses may be appropriate depending on the situation, people tend to have go-to, default reactions that they enact indiscriminately. In fact, those who know us well can often predict how we will respond to a conflict situation, even without knowing the issues involved.


Several issues work in concert to limit response flexibility. This article highlights internal motivators that contribute to response rigidity: so-called "dark side" personality traits, conflict response styles, and low self-efficacy. Future articles will focus on external motivators such as workplace culture and team climate.


PERSONALITY TRAITS THAT FOSTER RESPONSE RIGIDITY


Over two decades of research suggests that personality traits normally leading to functional and performance-enhancing behavior can drive characteristic derailing behaviors when the pressure is on. We see this play out in conflict situations when a person who is normally passionate and enthusiastic about their work becomes hotheaded and aggressive when someone asserts a contrary opinion on an important issue. Or when someone who is typically collaborative and supportive becomes unwilling to express disagreement or provide negative feedback in a high-stakes situation.


These aspects of personality are often referred to as blind spots because people (especially those in positions of power) often do a poor job of evaluating when their typical, functional ways of behaving have crossed the line into derailing behavior. Unchecked, blind spots harm relationships and hinder performance by limiting response flexibility when inner tensions run high.


Because these counterproductive tendencies stem from aspects of personality, which is relatively stable and difficult to change, the key to managing their influence is through self-awareness and behavior change.


HOW TO INCREASE RESPONSE FLEXIBLY


Working in a coaching relationship is a highly effective way to change ineffective behaviors. And the cornerstone of effective coaching is enhanced self-awareness. We help our clients identify areas for potential change using structured feedback methods and assessments specifically designed for workplace development needs. Armed with this information, we help our clients develop a plan to begin modifying, replacing, or compensating for problematic behaviors in a feedback-rich environment.


On your own, you can also work to uncover blind spots by asking those who know you well and who are likely to provide candid feedback, such as family and friends, how they see you when you are under pressure. How do you tend to respond to conflict or to disagreements about issues that are important to you? Also take advantage of check-ins with your boss and direct reports or during project debriefs to ask for honest feedback about how you show up under pressure. Be curious. Listen carefully and look for patterns. Then, develop a plan to control or replace ineffective behaviors with new ones, setting goals and establishing feedback mechanisms to gauge your progress.


NEEDS-BASED MOTIVES THAT FOSTER RIGIDITY


A second source of response rigidity supported by over 50 years of research also has roots in aspects of personality. Referred to as conflict styles, these are preferred ways of responding to conflict that stem from relatively stable values and needs-based motives such as altruism, affiliation, dominance, and power.


Five well-researched conflict styles are forcing one's own view and desires, yielding to the desires and views of others, avoiding the conflict altogether, compromising to obtain partial satisfaction for all, and collaborating to obtain mutually satisfying solutions for all. Although a collaborating approach to conflict is associated with the least negative consequences, each approach has its place.


People are capable of selecting any of these behaviors in response to a conflict. However, they often default to those that satisfy their core values and needs (e.g., affiliation, power). The result is the habitual use of a conflict response apart from thoughtful consideration of whether it is likely to be most productive for a given situation. Overuse leads to the development of a conflict style, which limits response flexibility.


HOW TO INCREASE RESPONSE FLEXIBLY


Gaining a greater self-awareness of your preferred conflict management approach is the first step to increasing response flexibility: which style(s) do you tend to rely on most often and which do you rarely, if ever, use? Increased self-awareness can occur in a coaching relationship using validated assessments of conflict styles, or by asking for candid feedback from others regarding which of the five styles is most and least typical of how you show up in conflict situations.


Once you understand your go-to response(s), it is important to add to your strengths by developing the skills to effectively use each of the other conflict management approaches. This involves choosing the most appropriate response for a given situation and successfully executing it in a way that minimizes potential negative consequences associated with it. For example, explaining in advance to your team that you want input on a contentious issue but that you intend to make the final decision alone (forcing).


In a coaching relationship, skill building can be accomplished efficiently with specific developmental exercises that are tailored to your developmental needs and provide scaffolded learning experiences such as role-playing scenarios and low-stakes opportunities to practice the approach, reflect on the experience, and refine your skills.


On your own, you can take a social learning approach to skill development by identifying others with conflict response styles that are different from yours, observing how and when they use their preferred approach, and then identifying low-stakes situations to imitate the behaviors that you found particularly effective. Because conflict situations tend to be memorable, you should be able to draw on your memory to get started. To get the most from a social learning approach, it is important to think of situations where a response style yielded positive outcomes. However, keep in mind that conflict styles are often used inflexibly. As a result, you can expect that a style will yield negative results in some situations because it is not the best approach. With this in mind, you can also learn from these situations.


Remember that these new behaviors may feel unnatural at first, but with practice, they can become helpful response options that contribute to successful outcomes in high-stakes situations. And experiencing successful outcomes is critically important for developing new skills, as the final section explains.


LOW SELF-EFFICACY AND RESPONSE RIGIDITY


Two findings from research bring into focus the downsides of conflict rigidity. First, no one approach is effective for managing every type of conflict. Second, people are more effective at managing conflict when they feel comfortable using a variety of approaches.


These findings imply that anything that limits a person's ability to flexibly select and successfully execute a situationally appropriate conflict response is likely to lead to a history of unsuccessful conflict management experiences. Repeated experiences of failure can lead to reduced confidence in one's ability to successfully manage conflict (i.e., low self-efficacy).


Given the tendency towards response rigidity, it is perhaps not surprising that a recent survey found that 43% of CEOs and 34% of senior managers rated conflict management skills as their greatest need for development.


Low self-efficacy in managing conflict appears both to contribute to response rigidity (we are less likely to use behaviors that we are not sure we can execute effectively) and to be a result of response rigidity (we often experience negative results when we inflexibly respond to conflict which reduces our confidence in our ability to manage conflict).


INCREASING SELF-EFFICACY


Self-efficacy in managing conflict is critically important and can be strengthened by increasing response flexibility. Two ways to do that, as discussed in this article, are altering dysfunctional personality-based reactions triggered by conflict situations and developing a range of conflict management approaches.


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Given the inevitability of conflict whenever people work together, internal motivators that limit response flexibility must be skillfully and effectively addressed. Only by doing so can individuals, teams, and organizations minimize the destructive downsides of conflict and reap the benefits that come from flexibly choosing an apt response.




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