By: Erik Van Slyke
On the surface, you work for a congenial organization where people are polite, friendly and rarely disagree. But try to create change and you are met with resistance, delays, confusion, or even sabotage.
The style of your work environment may be less a reflection of intent and more a reflection of capability. It may be that your team, colleagues or leaders are not applying the skills to leverage conflict as a tool to build relationships and generate employee engagement.
While changing your company's culture may be more than you can tackle alone, you can change the dynamic of your individual relationships. This is done by modeling three behaviors that encourage the employee innovation, collaboration, and creativity that come from constructive disagreements: listen, confront, and collaborate.
1. Listen. When trying to introduce organizational change, the first step we often take is to spell out the logic and reasoning that supports our ideas and solutions. When others remain unmoved, we usually try harder to convince them by repeating the message, selling the benefits, persuading, or using charm. At our worst, we argue, manipulate, sulk, or withdraw from the interaction.
When we use these behaviors, change often proves time-consuming and frustrating, and the process is delayed or derailed. The bottom line? The more we try to sell our point of view, the more everyone walks away from the interaction thinking, “Why don’t they listen to me?”
Exactly. Listening is the key to drawing people out, maintaining conflict at the right intensity and ultimately, to creating effective and well-timed solutions. Only after we have listened to others will they want to listen to us. Only after they feel understood will they want to understand and be influenced by us.
Often, the reason others don’t go beyond polite head-nodding is because they don’t feel they will be heard. By seeking first to identify and understand the needs and interests of others -- even if it comes out as a complaint or problem -- we create an environment that increases the chances we will get their point of view on the table. Only then can we uncover the criteria to create solutions that are satisfactory to everyone involved.
It requires that you not only listen to what’s said, but also what’s not said -- body language, word choice and tone. That’s where you find clues to what they are feeling and thinking. When you reflect back to them what you see and what you suspect, it not only helps them feel understood, it is an initial, gentle way to . . .
2. Confront. A second critical skill required to model the behaviors of constructive conflict is confrontation. One of the more significant reasons conflicts become destructive is because we avoid them.
In order to receive the benefits of conflict, however, we sometimes have to create it. At minimum we have to draw out the disagreement we suspect may exist beneath the surface.
Confrontation forces issues to the surface and generates dialogue. Constructive confrontation communicates the problem, but also demonstrates our continued desire to listen to the other party. By engaging in face-to-face interaction, we demonstrate mutual respect, the willingness to explore new ideas and a commitment to agenda-free resolution.
Confrontation can be as simple as saying, “I’m sensing . . .” or, “What’s on your mind?” Even then, it requires courage because you might hear something you don’t want to hear. For confronting to stay constructive, you have to accept that their thoughts have validity. And that requires that you to listen . . . patiently . . . and work to understand the concerns beyond the words.
3. Collaborate. Finally, constructive conflict requires that you maintain a focus on collaborative problem-solving. This process ensures that both parties in a conflict benefit from the interaction. You can model this win-win thinking by not rushing to a compromise solution just to move forward. Insist on solutions that all parties find satisfactory and are committed to implementing. Collaboration recognizes that constructive resolution is not about your way or my way. It is about a better way.
Individuals who model collaborative behavior communicate openly and refuse to accept limitations of individual needs. These individuals help colleagues search for the underlying common goals that demonstrate how everyone is an important contributor and critical to final solutions.
Collaborative people also are adept at redefining problems in ways that compel others to participate. They do so by tapping into the individual motivators that make everyone feel understood and critical for success. A collaborative focus considers both objective business interests as well as the often overlooked emotional needs required for buy-in and commitment.
By using listening and confrontation you can create an atmosphere of open communication and trust within your company culture. When coupled with a focus on collaborative problem-solving, you help others seek solutions that will satisfy themselves while simultaneously satisfying others. Together these tools will enhance your interactions and lead to more employee innovation in the workplace.
Erik Van Slyke is the managing director of Solleva Group, a change management consulting firm, and the author of Listening to Conflict (AMACOM, 2009).