Put two people in a room and at some point, there will be conflict. The story is as old as Cain and Abel.
Cain and Abel were the first and second sons of Adam and Eve. While Cain was a farmer, Abel was a skilled shepherd who took care of the family’s animals. One day Cain and Abel made sacrifices to the Lord to worship and thank Him. Cain brought some of the produce from the land while Abel brought the firstborn of his sheep. God showed favor upon Abel’s sacrifice because it was an offering that came from the best Abel had to give. This made Cain very angry and jealous. Cain lured his brother Abel into the fields and killed him with a rock.
The Lord called to Cain asking what happened and after Cain lies about killing his brother, God punishes Cain. While God’s harsh punishment on Cain was that he would no longer able to grow crops on his land, He did promise Cain that no one would kill him.
Brothers. Yet according to the story, their conflict rose to such a grievous level that death was a result.
In dealing with others, we are mostly more civil now. Even though some segments of society still see violence as an alternative to conflict management, for the most part, we have evolved. But just barely.
Unresolved conflicts bring longer term issues such as deterioration of the organization or relationships involved. Health concerns are exacerbated when the stress of conflict grows unchecked. I am convinced that the whole world went through a deterioration of mental health as a result of the conflict caused by Covid. The disease itself was disruptive enough, but the way it was handled by governmental agencies created massive amounts of conflict. Frankly, its still doing so in its waning days.
But even without a pandemic, individuals and organizations are dealing with conflict in an epidemic like fashion. Left versus right, haves versus not-haves, natives versus immigrants and an endless blending of all three have created massive waves of unresolved conflict.
For most of my adult life, I have been involved officially and unofficially in change management. Whether it was in the naval submarine force or working in any of the dozens of companies afterwards, my primary purpose was to implement and manage change.
In the Navy, the change was manifested in training sailors to be better submariners and later training sailors and others to be better technicians in their fields, This was done by leadership competencies as well as applying learning principles. The entire process was meant to change someone from a civilian to a useful team member in the navy community.
Along the way, there was conflict. As a leader, my role was to help manage that conflict as best as possible and where practical, reduce the conflict to a minimal degree. I learned early on that you are never going to completely eliminate conflict so the best you can hope for is to make its impact less significant.
What, what??? Never going to completely eliminate it?
Yes, that is correct. My experience has been for over fifty years that even when to previous opponents stand in front of a mediator and shake hands, it is at best a temporary truce. The level of hurts and betrayed trust can be pushed below the surface but they are still there. It often takes years and a lot of backsliding to finally come to a point of trust once that trust has been broken.
In my civilian jobs, that has been a principle barrier to efficiency in many of the organizations I worked with. Long standing conflicts create long standing structures to compensate for the conflicts. The biggest I have seen were structural conflicts between union and management. Both have their faults. It’s common for both parties to play the role of Cain while picturing themselves simultaneously as the righteous Abel to a point where efficiency is completely stifled. In quiet conversations with leaders from both sides, each is absolutely convinced that the other side is the root of all evil and if only they would admit that, all would be well again.
Time and repetition reinforce the stereotype and at some point, it becomes part of the institutional culture.
The same thing happens in government. Especially if government is transient between one side and the other at the whim of the voters. The institutional culture builds a scab over the old wounds which tends to make the body less sensitive. Even when the same party controls the power structure, factions can create the same types of stress and conflict.
The result is that otherwise good people become un-functional. The organizations stumbles to a halt or at least stops being effective. That has a tendency to compound the casualty and make things so difficult that people who depend on the organization lose all faith.
So, what do you do? Is it salvageable?
First Choice of too many: You can do nothing.
Eventually the extra weight will topple the entire organization and someone else will come along and take it over. The dramatic changes may send a shock through the organization and lead it to a different place. But the cost ill be high in terms of human capital and lost trust from stakeholders.
Second Choice for organizations that want to succeed: You can ask for help.
There are some great organizational resources in the market place including programs written by people like Patrick Lencioni. His bestselling book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team has been very useful for a number of organizations I worked with over the years. The corresponding workbooks and exercises are very effective in overcoming some of the major barriers in team development.
A later book from Lencioni called The Advantage is based on a four discipline model that focuses on:
Building a cohesive leadership team
Over communicating Clarity
Reinforcing the Clarity
You can see more here:
But to be honest, the best help comes for a trained outsider that has no agenda within the structure.
In the end, conflict is something that will always occur. Controlling and taking advantage of the conflict to increase productivity are the real solutions for a path forward.
But it’s a choice. Do nothing and it will become the rock in Cain’s hand. Be proactive in dealing with it and you might find that your organization reaches heights it has never seen.