October 2019

The Emotion Trap

People often ignore factors or circumstances that surround disagreements, and when they do, disagreements escalate into conflict. Delay resolution too long and the conflict becomes intractable.  Once this happens, a successful outcome is harder to reach.

These kinds of conflict leave emotional scars. In an article some years ago I wrote about the emotions that are connected to most conflicts, and how these can interfere with both a timely solution and one that satisfies the interests and needs of those most directly involved in the conflict. The reason why it is so difficult at that point is surprisingly simple.

You cannot overcome an emotional investment on the part of someone without taking the time to separate the person (i.e. his/her feelings) from the issue. Once someone invests his or her emotions in a particular point of view or position, changing that person’s mind becomes very challenging.

A quick look at what we see playing out in our communities and in the country more broadly provides ample evidence of how hard that process can be. We also can look more narrowly and focus on the business world and see conflicts that haven’t been successfully resolved, and the reasons almost always reflect a failure to overcome the emotional investment of the parties in the issue in dispute.

It is easy to point out some of the more typical kinds of unresolved conflicts such as labor strikes in various companies and industries. We know mergers are fraught with conflict because careers and people’s livelihood are on the line. While these kinds of conflicts make the news, they are not even the tip of the iceberg.

Look around your own company or department and, if you pay attention, you will notice that things are not running as smoothly as you initially think. The signs are there, but most people aren’t trained to recognize them for what they are.

Are the other employees in the department competitive in an obvious way? Just about everyone is taught that competition is a good thing, but there is fundamental truth in the old adage that too much of a good thing is harmful. When employees in a group or department become too competitive, it is a symptom of something much larger. In a highly charged environment where employees become excessively competitive, team work collapses. This in turn introduces another group of behaviors that are mostly negative.

Are you uncertain of your management team, and as a consequence, are you trying to “fly under the radar”? This defense mechanism is not uncommon when employees find themselves working for managers that are never around, or who are known to excessively criticize an employee’s work.

In an environment where conflict percolates beneath the surface, and goes unresolved, a series of behaviors can build up and continue almost unnoticed that force people in that department to adjust here, bend there, and make other kinds of compromises to get things done.

And when you go home at the end of the day, you take with you a lingering sense that the day did not go as well as you wanted. That sense of dissatisfaction builds up and eventually impacts your performance, your dedication and commitment.

Unresolved conflict erodes group cohesion, damages professional relationships, and can even damage the organization. People’s emotions sustain conflict, and once you recognize that, you can begin the process of unwinding the issues that created the conflict in the first place.

In my work I talk about this unwinding process in terms of a triangle. Some of you who’ve read my newsletter over the years know I talk about this from time to time. I try not to repeat myself, and look at different ways of making these essential points. For those of you reading this for the first time, the three point of the triangle are: Separate, Explain, and Criteria.

Successful conflict resolution almost always begins by getting each sides’ assumptions out into the open. The emotional investment that I talk about in this letter is, more often than not, supported by assumptions; mostly about the other parties in the dispute. Bringing those assumptions out into the open is the first step in separating fact from fiction, and separating the person from the emotions.

The manager, or the person facilitating the process can then present a set of questions that allow the people involved to explain their issues in detail. The explanation process introduces clarity, and this produces understanding. This is not a step where one party agrees or accepts what the other party wants. It is the point where each side understands the other. The foundation for conversation is built.

The third corner is what I call the criteria step. Once the foundation for dialogue is built, potential solutions require clearly identified criteria that will allow the solutions to advance in a manner the people can see and evaluate objectively.

This is the crux of the process. The triangle has to be more than a drawing on a page or white board. The process requires that the parties to the conflict take action in a controlled way that leads to a successful resolution of the conflict. This action has key components, including, but not necessarily limited to:

  • Jointly developing a written plan where everyone involved in the conflict agrees with the plan. (consensus over compromise)
  • The basis for measuring results is built into the plan
  • Key decision makers are identified early and their roles are equally clear
  • Ownership of outcomes is a commitment established at the beginning

Work environments damaged by conflict can be healed, and the integrity of the organization restored. Those directly involved in the conflict, and those brought in to assist need to recognize that this process is not without consequences. In my work with clients I keep two concepts in mind; equity and prudence.

I emphasize these two concepts because, in today’s environment, people accept the idea of collateral damage far too easily. I have immense distaste for solutions that clear the field without any thought to innocent by-standers.

Food for Thought:  In order to develop a complex argument it is necessary to ask what, how, and why questions. These questions will lead from observation to exploration and from there to an argument (from the Penguin Handbook).

Do you have questions about how to grow your business?  CDC Integrated Services Supports the Services Cooperative Association. Learn more about them at: www.servicesca.org.