Our individual upbringing and experience have influenced each of us differently in terms of how we view conflict. Craig Weber says conflict generally produces one of two responses in people: engage or avoid.
Basically, when there's a tough issue to confront—when there's a tough conversation to address, when someone's doing something we don't like—we revert to some fairly primal mental reactions. One is to get away from it, and we often will get away from it by either physically leaving or by avoiding the conversation with that person because we don't want to make it worse—we don't want to escalate the problem. Very often we do a quick calculus in our head that says, if I engage with this person, it might get ugly and nasty and I may look bad, and if I don't engage the issue, it probably won't go away. Sometimes we just decide to play it safe and live with the problem. On the other hand, some of us do the calculus and think, I don't care if I look bad, I don't care if this person gets upset. What's important to me is swaying the way they look at the problem. It's getting my point across. From this position, we can be very argumentative, we can get very positional … we can get outright condescending.
As Weber says, whether we choose to engage or to avoid often depends on our own in-the-moment cost-benefit analysis of the implications. If I confront the problem, will there be some damage to my relationship with this person? If I avoid or ignore the problem, is it likely to get worse? Unfortunately, in many conflicted situations—such as the scenarios above—both outcomes are likely possible. If you are confrontational, something bad might come out of it, particularly if you don't approach it in the right way (although some people don't care—they just want to get their way and be right). And we know intuitively that left alone, problems don't go away; they rumble like shifting plates in the earth until a full-blown earthquake strikes.
Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen of the Harvard Negotiation Project recognize the inherent challenge of managing the kinds of "difficult conversations" involved in confronting conflict.
Delivering a difficult message is like throwing a hand grenade. Coated with sugar, thrown hard or soft, a hand grenade is still going to do damage. Try as you may, there's no way to throw a hand grenade with tact or to outrun the circumstances. And keeping it to yourself is no better. Choosing not to deliver a difficult message is like hanging onto a hand grenade after you've pulled the pin. Because at some level we know the truth: If we try to avoid the problem, we'll feel taken advantage of, our feelings will fester, we'll wonder why we don't stick up for ourselves, and we'll rob the other person of the opportunity to improve things. But if we confront the problem, things might get even worse. We may be rejected or attacked; we might hurt the other person in ways we didn't intend; and the relationship might suffer.
So, in some ways it may seem that we're damned if we do, damned if we don't. There may not be a clear solution in sight. Nonetheless, in Accountable Organizations it's imperative to tackle conflict, to face the difficult conversations. To see why, let's take a look at conflict from the perspective of integrity, accountability, and trust.
Integrity. If the conflict is serious enough—and if you're going through all the mental machinations, it probably is—your values and beliefs are at stake. If you ignore the conflict and let the problem ride, your personal integrity might take a blow. Remember, part of integrity is standing up for what's right, even in the face of adversity.
Accountability. In conflicts between two people, both sides are usually contributing somehow to the disagreement. In claiming accountability, you must acknowledge your role in getting into this mess in the first place. This is the hardest part to recognize, since you may be thinking it's all the other person's fault.
Trust. Members of Accountable Organizations seek to create trust internally (with colleagues, subordinates, and supervisors) and externally (with shareholders, customers, the media, and so on). If you have a conflict that isn't being addressed, trust between the parties is taking a beating. If you are successful in managing through the conflict, trust is earned on both sides.
Craig Weber, president of Weber and Associates, interview by author, April 24, 2003.
Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen, Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most (New York: Penguin Books, 1999), xvi-xvii.