February 04, 2022

Conflict-conscious organizations are more prepared for the future of work.

Conflict, by its nature, makes us want to retreat or run in the opposite direction. When we hear the word, images of war, physical altercations, violence, and discomfort instantly jump to mind. When we think of conflict in the workplace, our hearts might sink into our bellies — our nervous system responds with fight, flight, or freeze when we sense that some tension could impact our already-stressful work lives. Avoiding conflict is a natural response, but it’s rarely the healthiest option. In fact, when we avoid conflict in the workplace, tensions can grow and fester into something else entirely. 

Bravely Pro Dr. Emily Skinner has studied conflict for ten years and works with peace-building systems, specifically within workplace contexts. Dr. Skinner works with leaders and executives to help shift their mindsets from conflict avoidance to conflict consciousness. A given conflict is hardly ever about the thing we think it’s about. Dr. Skinner says, “In our intimate relationships, if you’re fighting about shampoo, chances are that the source of the conflict isn’t really the shampoo.” Dr. Skinner brings this unique perspective of conflict consciousness to her coaching clients to help people get unstuck from a conflict. “Conflict-consciousness is a lifestyle very much connected to wellness. We often outsource wellness with practices like therapy, physical trainers, lawn mowing or laundry services, so it makes sense that we would need support in finding solutions to conflict in our lives.” 

Conflict avoidance can be harmful, neutral, or beneficial.

Avoidance is a conflict resolution tactic and is not the antithesis of conflict consciousness, nor is it inherently wrong. Sometimes conflict avoidance is the safest route – but it’s rarely the most beneficial in the long term. Conflict consciousness is about adding tools to your conflict-resolution toolbelt. Avoidance becomes a problematic solution when it’s our default, both in interpersonal interactions and in response to systemic issues. For instance, in the arena of diversity, equity and inclusion, conflict avoidance can become a means of evading accountability, making it impossible to effect meaningful change. In workplaces with clear systems of hierarchy and power, when leadership is avoiding conflict resolution or not making conflict resolution a priority, it maintains systems of oppression. 

Consider negotiation.

Instead of over-relying on conflict avoidance, consider other tools like negotiation. Dr. Skinner explains that hardly anyone thinks of themselves as a negotiator, but negotiation is built into our everyday lives: “I negotiate with my alarm clock. Then my schedule, then my family, partner, my dog.” Negotiation has been connotations of tough guys smoking cigars in dimly lit parking lots- but really, we’re all negotiating daily, finding compromises and nuanced solutions to complex problems. Seek the middle ground by finding the room for give and take. 

Conflict consciousness is a process, not an event. 

Conflict consciousness is not always event-based. To become conflict conscious requires a mindset shift that is more akin to a lifestyle change, like being mindful of your environmental choices. Practicing recycling, using less water, and taking more public transportation requires an individual to see the world through a lens where they impact their surroundings. Similarly, to be conflict conscious requires us to see our work environment through the lens of personally impacting the people and social environments around us. This consciousness is a process, not a one-time event. 

Ask yourself these questions to gauge where you’re at on your conflict consciousness journey: 

  • Are you intentionally allowing for feedback, growth, coaching, learning, and development in your workplace culture?
  • How are you creating healthy systems that normalize open and honest dialogue — even when it raises the risk of conflict? 
  • Is there sufficient psychological safety in your workplace for conflict to be met with compassion and curiosity? 
  • What are the group norms for addressing conflict? 
  • Do employees understand how we make decisions and how we manage risks?
  • When priorities shift, how do we manage and communicate the change in needs? 

Conflict consciousness will drive a more equitable future.

The Great Resignation has shown us that the relationship between the employee and the company is changing. Employees are raising their expectations for treatment in the workplace. Historically, there has been a vast power imbalance, and employees have not felt comfortable sharing their needs. People are uncomfortable asking for growth, more compensation, or support in thriving in their roles. It’s time to help people take up space in contexts where they’ve historically been silenced, minimized, or oppressed. 

Employees invest their time and energy in the company, and employers invest resources into their employees. That equation is shifting as people come to a deeper understanding of their life’s purpose, how they want to use their time, and their values. While the pandemic has posed many challenges, little gifts have revealed themselves along the way. One of them is the pause in the status quo. That crack in the facade has allowed people to get real with what is important to them. As employees begin to understand how workplace norms have historically been harmful and exploitative, it’s the leaders’ responsibility to listen to that feedback and find solutions going forward, to create a more equitable, just, and fair workplace for the future. What is underlying The Great Resignation is this sentiment from individuals: “If you’re going to avoid my needs, I will leave.” 

Wellness is multi-dimensional.

Conflict consciousness is a key component of employee wellness. The way leaders manage people and address their daily needs feeds into employee well-being. When leaders take the time to listen to their employees and commit to action, they cultivate a sense of belonging and inclusion. When employees feel safe enough to speak up and can name the ways their leaders are working to meet their needs, trust is built. Intentionally building in conflict-consciousness, open communication, and mutual care systems can create lasting communities organized around shared goals. These mindset shifts are how we will carve out a more equitable, trusting, human-centric workplace for the future.

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