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Emotions and Conflict

Tough to brakeThis is the third post in my series of comments on the Wheel of Conflict developed by professors Bernard Mayer, Ph.D. and Christopher Moore, Ph.D. In developing the graphic illustration of the different factors that drive conflict, these two gentlemen placed Emotion immediately after Structure. There are sound reasons for their decision to place where they did because emotions drive one’s actions, behaviors, and even thinking.

More than 50 years of research offer compelling evidence that emotions strongly shape most decisions, and are a key driver of behavior, and are often the impetus behind conflicts in the workplace and even between companies. Emotions are not uniformly negative as both science and history teaches us. Strong emotions can drive people to achieve extraordinary things; even anger can generate positive outcomes.

But the converse is equally true in that emotions such as anger can create a negative and damaging environment in the workplace and is often the driver behind many workplace conflicts.

Psychologist John D. Mayer argues that emotions carry a physical aspect when they bridge thought, feeling, and action and can impact a person’s physiology both positively and negatively depending on the level of stress being felt at the time of the decision/action. This simple truth has been experienced by anyone confronted by a demanding task coupled with a critical timeline.

Managers and supervisors often fail to recognize that decisions people make in the workplace are judged, by those making the decision or taking the action, on the basis of the risk to themselves. That perceived risk strongly influences their decisions or their actions. Someone who feels anxious about the impact of the outcome on him/her may choose a more conservative approach, involve others, take longer to execute the task, and potentially sacrifice the best outcome for one that is safe.

A negative work environment will drive other negative behaviors. Doing the safe thing can lead to doing only the least necessary to stay “under the radar”, and it can lead to other more damaging behaviors such as missing schedules, making excuses, asking others to do the work for you.

Managers and supervisors need to develop an active awareness of those situations where emotions can have an adverse effect on the work, the cohesiveness of the group, and the productivity that is necessary to produce the necessary outcomes, and they must be able to react in a constructive way to avoid the potential for conflict without creating reasons for greater anxiety and uncertainty.

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