Stop Being Conflicted About Conflict: A Key Step Toward Organizational Growth.

By Mikhaila Fendor and Scott Miller

Photo by Charl Folscher on Unsplash

What is conflict resolution? Katie Shonk of Harvard Law School Daily Blog, defines conflict resolution as “ the informal or formal process that two or more parties use to find a peaceful solution to their dispute.” For those in the conflict resolution field, we take for granted the meaning of resolution to be synonymous with terms like management and mitigation. We keep in mind that conflict is ubiquitous, recurring, and natural and that there are useful communication tools readily available for people experiencing conflict and working through disputes. For the general public, however, the meaning of resolution can often be misunderstood in a negative way as definitive and sometimes even punitive. What comes to mind for you when you think of conflict resolution? Legal proceedings? Divorce and custody battles? While these are realities of the field, these associations have led to a general hesitation to utilizing conflict management as a frequent practice in the workplace. What is usually applied, however, are things like policy reform, Human Resource initiatives, and JEDI (Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion) strategic planning.

Take some of the more prevalent conflicts that have been brought to our collective attention in the U.S. as of late. In the last year alone, the response to the murder of George Floyd, the insurrection after the Presidential Election, and most recently, violent attacks on the members of the Asian community have provided countless opportunities for conflict resolution in workplaces across the country. Political discussions are happening more and more in places previously deemed taboo. Tensions can run high. That is a given. The question is whether we can use that tension, aka conflict, to spur personal and organizational growth. Or will we let the tension fester by ignoring it or running the other way possibly leading to organizational regression?

A popular professional response to this, genuine or performative, has been to address these conflicts by inundating organizations and companies with information about race, diversity, and inclusion. This has been coupled with a sudden and dramatic increase of opportunities for engagement, HR, and JEDI positions as well as new organizational strategy. In and of itself, this response provides some tools for a more just and equitable workplace However what’s been forgotten is that with healthy change comes healthy conflict. This is one reason why reactions to the uptick in JEDI discussions have been mixed. The increase in dialogue itself is reason for optimism. Just as important, though, are the critiques for lackluster and superficial efforts that seek to “check a box” rather than palpably change the exclusive atmospheres of many of these workplaces. We also see that in many white led organizations, JEDI work, while gaining higher priority, is still just a box to be checked rather than an ongoing commitment to self-reflection and change.

What I’m wondering now is whether JEDI work can be more effective if internal soul searching and organizational evolution is inherently accompanied by professional conflict resolution. That is — the addition of a completely neutral third party to facilitate exploration of self as well as progressive communication around desired organizational change. I would argue that finite equity training sessions are simply not enough. I understand there is already apprehension about engaging in conflict resolution because people honestly don’t know much about what it entails. Systemically, white dominant society prioritizes comfort over conflict and “niceness” over facing difficult truths. The events of the last year have brought the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion to the forefront but it’s also brought a lot of fear. Fear about change, fear about failure and fear about saying the wrong thing. Fear of conflict.

It may be helpful to hear perspectives on how these fears of conflict can play out in an organization and also how working through this fear can be immensely helpful. Scott details part of his experience below.

Scott’s Experience.

I spent nearly 15 years running a medium-sized nonprofit communications firm. During my tenure, we grew from ten to thirty staff and quintupled our budget. As a white man with the requisite competitive streak and drive to “win”, this was satisfying. Until it wasn’t.

What happened to me along the way? I learned, by committing our organization to a serious JEDI initiative, how different my lived experience, as a white man at the top of an org chart, was from the reality of millions of others living with the burden of white patriarchy, the code of conduct for “Western” society. Through self reflection and regular coaching, I came to understand the way I was wired; to never question my dominance, to compete, to “fix things” and above all, to either win conflicts that arose, or pretend those conflicts didn’t exist, was holding me and my organization back from transformational change.

The fact is, conflict gets a bad rap. When organizations go through the starts and stops of becoming more diverse and equitable, both internally and in the way they do their work, conflict is inevitable. White men may have a reputation, borne out in scientific research, for responding to conflict with attempts to dominate and then quickly making up with members of their tribe (other white men). In fact, my experience is, just as often, white men turn tail and run. Yes, I know fellow trash can bangers, this sounds like cowardice unbecoming of our carefully cultivated brand. But here are some of the ways I saw conflict avoidance crop up in myself and other white men.

Opting out, because we can. In a white patriarchal world, white men have the unique privilege of retreating without losing. We wrote all the rules by which we usually operate. Finding a safe space, where we can avoid troublesome conversations or thoughts, is our sole purview. Others do not have that luxury.

Insisting on a quick fix. That’s our job as white male leaders, right? We fix things. As quickly as possible. In reality, the kinds of conflicts that arise around JEDI work have a tail that can last a lifetime. We will not help dismantle white patriarchy with a “to-do” list. It requires skill sets that white men often find more elusive, like vulnerability and a willingness to sit with discomfort and a lack of immediate resolution.

“Protecting” your staff. This was an instinctive reaction to me, a retreat from conflict all dressed up in a cloak of presumed compassion and wisdom. Keeping “bad news” from staff, or even complicated choices seems like a way for a white leader to take the reins and do his job. In reality, I learned, this is conflict avoidance plain and simple, condescending rather than compassionate and yet another exercise of white male power.

Ultimately, I learned that conflict was an opportunity to learn, to grow and to engage in conversations around race, power and privilege that are essential for transformational change. And if you are willing to acknowledge that despite our penchant for puffery, our dominance at the top of most hierarchies and the self-confidence that comes from privilege, conflict management is a place where most white men have a lot to learn.

Let’s be radically honest here, talking about race is incredibly tough. These difficult conversations, in work environments especially, can lead to painful feelings such as guilt, shame, rage and humiliation. And sometimes the root of the issue is only tangentially related to race! In circumstances like this, emotions are way too high to have productive conversations and illicit organizational change. Scott emphasized the fact that getting help to work through his own aversion to conflict helped reveal blind spots around deeply embedded and limited ways of thinking about success, productivity, and transformation. What could our professional landscape look like if more organizations got creative and brave with their approach to conflict? Maybe it’s time we get help in transitioning difficult conversations from uncomfortable and tension-filled to emotionally meaningful, and ultimately to organizationally productive and conducive to a new kind of engagement and development. Maybe it’s time we stopped being so conflicted about conflict.