Remember Scotty on Star Trek? I don’t know if it’s just my childhood recollection or if he actually said this a lot, but when he was asked by Kirk to push the ship’s engine hard, he’d say in that Scottish accent, Aye, Cap’n, but I think she’s going to blow!
In workplace conflict, how do you know when it’s escalating to the point it’s going to blow? And at what point should you intervene?
Know how to identify constructive conflict
Loud or intense conflict is not necessarily destructive conflict. While it’s reasonable to expect a certain level of decorum in the workplace, keep in mind that the degree of emotion expressed in conflict is due, in part, to cultural upbringing and socialization. If you intervene too early in a conflict that’s still constructive, then you risk getting in the way of the participants working it out themselves and the learning and development that comes from that.
Some hints that the conflict is still constructive include: There’s forward movement in the conversation–even if it’s unfriendly, they still seem to be making progress and continuing to explore and negotiate. Those involved seem reasonably comfortable with the degree of intensity and aren’t experiencing it as coercion. The things being expressed may be difficult to hear but are not intended to inflict harm or intimidate.
Remember Scotty – recognize the hallmarks of destructive conflict
Destructive conflict will often include a number of these signs:
- The players have become rigid in their positions, so dug in and entrenched that they’re spinning their wheels.
- Direct communication between the parties is diminishing or absent. They may be using a third person as a go-between or are avoiding each other entirely.
- The dispute seems to have become more about defeating the other person than about the initial issues.
- The dispute has begun to involve others, as the players look to people around them for support, sympathy or power.
- Regular work or daily life is disrupted and the parties are losing time and energy to the conflict itself.
- The parties involved seem to view almost everything the other does through a filter of mistrust, suspicion or threat.
- Retaliation or getting even has become important and attempts at coercion are becoming more frequent.
Beware of adapting the organization to the conflict
It’s not uncommon for organizations to try adapting around the conflict. Reporting structures are changed, job descriptions and assignments altered, communication channels modified. These approaches have merit when those involved in the conflict are employees we want to keep on board, when the adaptations don’t create other problems in the organization, and when the modifications don’t simply allow the conflict to go underground.
There are times when it benefits the organization to try sorting out the conflict for real. When organizations choose this route, we demonstrate commitment to the great creativity that comes from well-managed conflict, to employees’ growth and development, and to building the kind of enduring work relationships that contribute to a satisfying work environment and benefit from the valuable and lasting result of conflict truly resolved. While such commitment may take more organizational effort on the front end, it results in back-end savings.