When you think about it, there are essentially four ways in which the players in a conflict-laden situation can deal with it:
Play the victim Say nothing, act powerless, and complain.
Leave Physically remove oneself from involvement.
Change oneself Move off one's position, shift one's view of the other party, or "let it go."
Confront Address the issue openly, candidly, and objectively; communicate with the other party.
Playing the victim is corrosive and often subversive. It leads to griping and sniping and tends to drive conflict underground . Playing the victim saps an organization of its vitality , as victims focus inward on their unresolved issues and reach out to recruit supporters to their point of view.
Let's face it. Walking away or leaving is always an option. We can turn our back on our friends , get divorced, or quit our job and head for greener pastures. But how many times can you run away? It is better to learn how to handle conflict.
Sometimes we can change ourselves by changing our perceptions of a situation. For example, you might try to achieve a positive outcome by changing your "story" or interpretation of another person's behavior.
Changing stories works successfully for some people, including the CEO whose company was acquired by the large consumer goods company, which was mentioned earlier. His original going-in story"Beware the corporate giant"put him on the defensive and kept him from taking advantage of the opportunities to leverage resources offered by the larger organization.
However, when he saw how effective the company president's cross-functional teams were, the CEO began to realize how self-defeating his story had been. Keeping the giant at bay might satisfy at least temporarilythe need for autonomy, but it would not contribute to future growth and prosperity . The way to achieve these goals was to develop a cohesive sense of teamwork within his organization, to become more of a player within the corporate entity, and to confront issues relating to his unit by thrashing them out openly and honestly with his colleagues in corporate.
With this new story, he followed the president's example, creating cross-functional teams within his organization and training them in conflict-resolution skills. Now, when his team needs to take a stand vis--vis a corporate issue, the CEO negotiates with the parent company with greater confidence. He knows that his team speaks with one voice, that he has forged relationships with key executives higher up on the corporate ladder, and that he has the skills to advance his point of view.
Another successful story-changer is the executive vice president of a personal care company, who happens to be a person of color . After the turnover in her division began to rise, she was sent for personal coaching. It soon became apparent that the major problem was in her style: She was viewed as a model of efficiency who was disconnected emotionally. When her coach suggested that she try to show a more human side, to relate to people emotionally as well as intellectually, she countered with her story: "People are always uncomfortable around someone who's different from them. They feel disconnected from me because I am a woman and an African-American. This is always going to put me at a disadvantage in the relationship game, no matter what I do."
The coach's response to her was, "That's your story. Your story is that race plays a role in this, and that's a story you need to let go of." And she did. She realized that she alone had created her story, without any empirical evidence. Once she replaced this negative story with one story that said, "They are as comfortable with me as they are with anyone else," she was able to focus on the real issues and attain a higher level of impact. But make no mistake about it. This option may come with a price, especially if changing your perceptions entails compromising basic values, having needs go unfulfilled, or bending reality.
The option of changing oneself can be an effective tool for minimizing stress and increasing effectiveness. But what happens at those moments of truth, when all the attempts to reframe your perceptions simply do not work? The only option left is to confront conflict.
The fourth option, confronting conflict directly, is ideal. We like to use a colorful metaphor for allowing disagreement and conflict to go unresolved: It is like having a dead elephant's head in the middle of the room. The elephant head is unsightly, distracting, and takes up a lot of space, but no one is willing to acknowledge that it is there. Trying to ignore it distracts members of the team from focusing externally on markets, customers, and competitors . The longer the elephant head remains, the worse its effect will beand it is unlikely that the elephant head will get up and leave. Only when team members acknowledge that the distasteful object is there and needs to be dealt with will they be able to remove it. By ending the conspiracy of silence, they can arrive at a solution for sweeping it away, giving it a proper burial , and moving on to activities that are more productive.
When thinking about figurative dead elephant heads, one team immediately comes to mind. Its problem was a minority executive in the finance division. The executive had been with the company for twenty years and lacked the managerial skill to be effective and, as a result, the organization's diversity efforts floundered. His colleagues tiptoed around this "dead elephant head." They feared that, because of his long tenure, the executive was untouchable. Consequently, they avoided confronting him. The situation deteriorated. As executives throughout the organization learned to work around their colleague, they began to show him less respect. Eventually, the executive was terminated , and away went the dead elephant head. If the issue had been confronted honestly and openly from the outset, however, it could have been resolved much sooner and without the prolonged agony.