Out behind the fuel depot
“Back in the day, sir, we handled things differently,” the old non-commissioned officer (NCO) told me. It was the early ’90s and I was a new Air Force judge advocate (military attorney or “JAG”) providing legal counsel on how to handle a disciplinary issue.
He went on to say (paraphrasing): “When I was a snotty young one-striper [a nickname for an enlisted airman recently out of basic training] in trouble, my senior NCO took me out behind the fuel depot and straightened me out real quick. No paperwork, no fuss. And you know what? I cleaned up my act and went on to have a great career!”
Now, I don’t endorse disciplinary measures without accountability and transparency. And the old NCO’s story was probably more nostalgia than fact. But it was a striking illustration of how expectations about dealing with conflict can differ dramatically within an organization, even between people with common goals.
Conflict-management cultures are both observable and subtle
When I began working in higher education, I was fascinated by the cultural differences I observed compared to life in the military. Beyond obvious differences in grooming and relocation toleration, subtle differences regarding conflict took more time to learn.
In some ways, the differences I observed were somewhat predictable based on stereotypes — military members tend to rely upon authority to resolve differences, and people in education tend to talk through issues extensively.
However, some differences were subtler…even surprising. For example, military members (or at least military members in the Air Force) tend to value flexibility in problem-solving. By the same token, people in academia (or at least those in leadership roles) tend to value clear divisions of responsibility.
These cultural differences are far from uniform. Still, they are some of the norms that shape the way members of these respective communities learn how to work and live together. The same holds for smaller organizations, even within larger organizations.
One aspect of culture that often remains unobserved “in plain sight” is an organization’s culture regarding conflict management. Yet, the ways people in an organization deal with conflict can be observed, categorized, and (thankfully) shaped.
Understanding your organization’s conflict management culture
The things we observe about people in dispute give us insights into personalities, access to resources, and power. But they also tell us something about organizational culture.
Organizational culture goes deeper than “casual Fridays,” birthday parties, and open spaces versus closed offices. Similarly, a conflict management culture is more than attitudes toward aggression, expectations of complexity in grievance systems, or “open door” policies.
A useful shorthand definition of organizational culture is: “The way we do things around here.” (Deal & Kennedy, “Corporate Cultures: The Rites and Rituals of Corporate Life,” 1982, republished 2000). The informal nature of this definition suggests that personalities, resources, and power shape the organizational culture vis-à-vis conflict over time, often in unplanned ways.
One way to begin to zero in on an organization’s conflict management culture is to ask this question: “When someone becomes upset about something within the team, what typically happens next?” The triggers for discontent take many forms — an unexpected policy change, a thoughtless remark, or a failure of expectations. An organization’s conflict management culture begins to become apparent when we look at what happens around a dispute or difficult interaction such as an organization-wide email about returning to physical workspaces as the pandemic recedes in some regions.
In my experience, certain broad “types” of conflict management cultures can be seen in the reverberations of dispute:
- “Fight Club.” Individual identities are tied up with where people stand on issues. Differences often crystallize around divisive poles and conflict seems to have a life of its own.
- Avoidance. The opposite of “Fight Club” — identities are tied up in ideals about peacefulness and harmony that result in avoiding or tamping down disputes.
- Divide and Conquer. The culture reinforces opportunistic exploitation of differences to advance personal goals.
- Top-Down. A central authority routinely acts as referee or decisionmaker, with group members consenting or acquiescing.
- Distributive. Individuals within the group employ different methodologies in response to circumstances, but with an overall goal of enhancing organizational cohesion and effectiveness.
None of these conflict-management cultures is “wrong” or “right” per se, and none are used all the time to the exclusion of others. They are just artefacts of the way people in a group approach conflict.
Once you assess what kind of conflict management culture (or cultures) you have, the question becomes “is it serving your group’s needs?” If the group’s highest need is to enjoy the thrill of conflict, then a “fight club” conflict-management culture may be entirely appropriate. On the other hand, if your group’s goal is to ensure a new program survives a large influx of new staff, a “fight club” culture might not work.
Although the various conflict-management cultures described above may serve group needs in larger society, in a workplace environment the distributive model is most likely to foster a sustainable, productive organization.
Features of a healthy conflict-management culture
To move or nudge your team into a distributive culture for conflict management, consider ways to build up the following aspects of your organization’s working practices:
- Growth mindset. Model short-term appreciation of conflict as a healthy opportunity for growth. When a dispute arises, find ways to frame the dispute as part of a larger question about important issues for everyone on the team. Similarly, at appropriate occasions, reflect upon instances in the past in which the team found its way through conflict and came out stronger.
- Perspective-taking. Conflict often results from a tendency to conceptualize differing opinions in a binary context, attributable to presumed group affinities (e.g., “liberal” or “conservative”). Therefore, create multiple and varied opportunities to hear and see others communicate on a broad range of topics. Adding complexity to viewpoints mitigates binary-view tendencies. However, take care to use processes that allow individuals to communicate safely and respectfully.
- Flexible methodologies. In many Western cultures, voting is king. And voting as a means of resolving differences has great benefits in terms of efficiency and clarity. But voting is a methodology, not a value. If your goal is “buy-in” and cohesion regarding implementation, voting may not work so well. A healthy conflict management culture recognizes that different methodologies — from janken pon (“rock, paper, scissors”) in Japanese culture, to council circles in indigenous traditions — serve different purposes in different circumstances. Be open to explore varying methodologies in multiple ways. Talk to a conflict-management professional like an ombuds for ideas.
- Broad ownership. It is tempting to look for presumed experts to provide solutions when disputes arise. It is even tempting for conflict management experts like ombuds to try to fulfill that role. However, the seeds of effective, lasting, and mutually beneficial arrangements usually lie within the knowledge of the participants to conflict themselves. Having a conflict management culture where the maximum number of members of the group feel a sense of ownership in the outcomes and processes has the greatest chances of achieving stability. Achieving broad ownership almost always starts with the explicit and repeated acknowledgment of one’s own contributions, even in the smallest things, rather than from judgments about others.
- Ease of engagement. An organization with positive attitudes, powerful goals, a willingness to employ varied methodologies, and even broad ownership of contribution will still run aground when the costs of engaging the conflict management system (including emotional costs) are high. For example, if a local conflict management culture allows for endless calls for “best of” in rounds of “rock, paper, scissors,” the method will soon lose its value in deciding who gets first pick in a pickup game of basketball. On the other hand, a process that provides for no “off-ramps” when participants feel unable to contribute will also be avoided. Ask “what are the on-ramps and off-ramps?” to improve engagement.
- Desire for movement. You might think parties involved in a dispute (direct participants and concerned observers) would want to resolve the dispute as soon as possible so that they could get on with their lives. However, inertia and familiarity are powerful counter forces to resolution. Additionally, difficulty in conceiving a future free from the dispute can impair individuals’ willingness to work at resolution. Consistently recognize and contextualize incremental movement to reduce reluctance for movement.
- Acceptance of boundaries between people and problems. It is not easy to remember participants in a dispute are human beings distinct from the substance of the dispute and from efforts to resolve the dispute. We are hardwired to attribute conflict to traits about individuals without considering the culture that may drive those behaviors. It takes energy and practice to see disputes as simply events in the lives of participants without building narratives about them (e.g., “he’s a ‘people-pleaser’” or “she’s a bully”). When addressing weak boundaries between people and conflict, focus discussion on the means employed to address conflict — whether effective (e.g., distributive negotiation) or ineffective (e.g., shouting) as simply means to desired ends. Thinking of dispute-related actions as simply tools helps short-circuit the personal attribution narrative.
- Managing power. Just as explicit boundary-setting is important in establishing a healthy conflict management system, open acknowledgment of power disparities can unlock fruitful discussions about the means of ensuring fair participation. It is admittedly tough to initiate such discussions in the workplace because it often feels unsafe for those with less power or feels like a risky concession of accountability for those with more power. However, openly acknowledging these dynamics enables participants to work jointly on mitigating the effects of power as an aspect of a healthy conflict management system.
Creating and Reinforcing the Conflict-Management Culture You Want
Building a healthy, comprehensive conflict-management culture from where you stand feels daunting if not impossible if your organization’s culture is not aligned with its purposes. Thankfully, changing “the way we do things around here” can begin by doing just one (or two) things differently when a dispute arises.
One thing would be to put on a figurative forecaster hat and ask yourself out loud in a safe place or write in a private notebook after a difficult event, “I wonder what is going to happen next?” Try to exercise genuine curiosity in answering the question. Even if you feel like you know what’s going to happen next because you’ve seen this scenario play out before, get as specific and factual as possible in answering the question. Talk to yourself (or write in a private notebook) as if you were a third party writing from the future looking back on events that unfolded. To get started, take this quiz (link) to imagine how your organization might respond in some hypothetical scenarios.
It is important to be specific and to use a third-party perspective because it sends a message to your brain that this dispute is an event that is part of a larger context — an input into a greater conflict culture. It also allows you to begin to see the type or types of conflict-management culture that may be prompting the behaviors you anticipate. With this dispassionate perspective, you can explore ways you might break the chain and nudge the participants and interested observers toward a new paradigm.
Framing a new paradigm for conflict management can then begin by asking someone — a leader, peer, or supportive friend — “What would it look like in [future time, e.g., six months] if we were able to have a different approach to [conflict-management characteristic, e.g., ownership of conflict contributions]?” Inviting others to use their imagination without condemnation from a future perspective can be a start to a deeper discussion about making it happen.
For example, in my discussion with a senior NCO leader many years ago, I might have asked him: “What would it look like in 15 years — when this Airman we are talking about now is a senior NCO himself — and we had been able to begin today to talk about who ‘owns’ the disciplinary process on our installation? What would his Air Force look like if more junior NCOs felt a sense of ownership like yours did when you were a one-striper, questionable as his methods were?”
Maybe there would be better options than a trip “out behind the fuel depot.”