“Get me outta here!” That’s the thought a lot of people have during workplace conflict. It’s the thought you have if you’re uncomfortable with conflict: I don’t like this. It’s messy. Maybe even painful. Get me outta here!
It’s the thought you have if you’re too comfortable with conflict: This is going nowhere good. I’m going to lose my temper. Get me outta here!
It’s the thought you have if your plate is overflowing and the thought of a time-consuming problem is too much: I don’t have time for this. Let me do it quickly and move on to more important matters. Get me outta here!
And it may even be the thought you have if you’re a manager and members of your team are stuck with a problem to which you can so quickly see the solution: I’m going to save them some time and energy. There’s no point in spinning our wheels. Let’s get outta here!
It’s understandable that you wouldn’t want to rest for long in an uneasy, messy place. Yet Get me outta here! is at the heart of why too many conflicts at work miss the gifts of the Groan Zone.
The Groan Zone is a phrase coined by Sam Kaner, author of the Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making (affiliate link), a terrific sourcebook for any manager or leader who wants to create inclusive, lasting solutions to complex problems. Kaner points out,
The early rounds of a discussion cover safe, familiar territory. People take positions that reflect conventional wisdom, they rehash well-worn disagreements, and they make proposals for obvious solutions. This is natural—the first ideas we express are the ones we’ve already thought about. When a problem has an obvious solution, it makes sense to close the discussion quickly. Why waste time?
There’s only one little problem. Most groups try to bring every discussion to closure this quickly….When a group of decision-makers has to wrestle with a difficult problem, they will not succeed in solving it until they break out of the narrow band of familiar options and explore a wider range of possibilities.
…Struggling to understand a wide range of foreign or opposing ideas is not a pleasant experience. Group members can be repetitious, insensitive, defensive, short-tempered…When this occurs, most people don’t have the slightest notion of what’s happening to them. Sometimes the mere act of acknowledging the existence of the Groan Zone can be a significant step for a group to take.
The Groan Zone is the place where too many individuals and groups find themselves thinking, Get me outta here! Yet time spent well and effectively in the Groan Zone makes a huge difference in the quality of the outcome. That’s because, when individual team members learn how to make peace with the Groan Zone, they discover that the Groan Zone is where the best learning, thinking and creativity has its genesis. The gifts of the Groan Zone are these:
- Far better understanding of the complexities of the problem.
- Greater clarity about individual perspectives and the piece of the whole puzzle that each person holds.
- Solutions that are built on the foundation of complex understanding.
- Better use of time spent up front so that time isn’t wasted re-visiting problems that were addressed too quickly.
- Stronger teams better positioned for creative problem-solving.
The best workplace teams aren’t ones without conflict. They’re the ones that understand how to navigate the Groan Zone waters with skill and have taken time to learn how to do it. By making peace with the Groan Zone, they’ve learned how to tap the opportunity offered by the most complex workplace challenges.
This post was originally published in 2007 and updated in 2016.