Any group of people, whether it is a club, company, church, synagogue, association or other entity, is a body or system. While very few of the people involved may relish conflict, it is a critical component of a healthy system. Absent opposing pressures, the system will cease to function. The body serves as the best example, as almost all muscles are formed in pairs. Movement of any kind, even as simple as changing the gaze from a near point to a far point, is accomplished by the opposing mechanical processes of muscles. A healthy system recognizes the inherent value of conflict, mitigates the normal human responses of “fight or flight”, and uses the opposing pressures to create healthy and viable action. That being said, most human systems or organizations have little to no capacity for utilizing conflict constructively.
Given the nature of culture, conflict is erroneously considered something to be avoided. This is nowhere more prevalent than, although by no means limited to, the great U.S. heartland. Conflict is wrong. Engaging in conflict is shameful. Niceness is highly valued. “If you can’t say something nice …” becomes the mantra for avoidance. Avoidance becomes the death knell of organizational structures. Avoidance is the system equivalent of not seeking medical attention when the body shows symptoms of illness or pain. Just as avoidance of medical attention often eventually results in otherwise preventable treatment or even surgery to remove or repair the affected part, so avoidance of conflict eventually requires a scapegoat or unnecessary intervention for a remedy. In either situation, the body or system will require a period of recuperation and intentional rehabilitation in order to regain health.
Conflict, many times, incubates over long periods of time. Implicit and unrecognized for what it is, conflict ingratiates itself subtly into the system and an underlying low intensity anxiety becomes common place. This can be likened to a long-term, but moderate, neck ache that becomes so natural that its absence causes as much concern as its presence should have in the first place. Its development was not an issue, however, because that would have required self-examination and introspection that is innately uncomfortable. All will remain stable, albeit moderately uncomfortable, until something changes – even something that would otherwise be healthy. In the case of a neck pain, a decision to engage in some form of health regimen may, all of a sudden, result in the locking up of what has become a spinal subluxation of the neck. The introduction of a positive step forward in a conflicted system can, in the same manner, result in an unexplained and almost immediate spastic response that brings several pre-existing conflicts to bear almost simultaneously, while appearing to be related only to the immediate situation. In this way, conflict is a chameleon – a trickster utilizing the most subtle and heinous disguises.
As a former optician, I will use eyes as an example. For an average person over forty, and a great many younger, eyeglasses are necessary. An eye examination is required at least every two years in order to provide the appropriate visual correction. Most people, however, will push that time period until some kind of obvious problem is present. By the time an eye examination is sought, due to various symptoms, asthenopia may have reared its ugly head. Asthenopia is a collection of mildly troubling, but rather erratic and variable, symptoms associated with eye fatigue, pain, discomfort, excessive tearing, blurring and double vision – just to name a few. This results because each eye has three sets of opposing external muscles, an internal sphincter muscle (iris) and a combination of sphincter-like ciliary muscles and suspensory ligaments, and each of these sets of muscles is constantly active. The eyes will go to extreme measures to compensate for an out of balance system, while providing few specific clues or symptoms until asthenopia becomes an issue. By then, the system is trained in compliance, despite the underlying discomfort.
When new eyeglasses with the correct prescription are fitted to this pair of eyes, the trained system now must overcome its training – the customary compensation now becomes over-compensation. Additional tensions are immediately created because the eye has to struggle against itself in order to see and behave as it is designed to do – five sets of opposing muscles and hundreds of ligaments enter into conflict. A common response is an immediate and profound increase in the various symptoms of asthenopia, each of which will be more apparent at different times depending on the tasks the eye has been instructed to perform. An inexperienced optician can become caught in a series of visits, each having different complaints and symptoms as the focus (some of which will seem exactly the opposite of others), and each requiring a different course of action. Before all is said and done, the patient tells other people that this optician, as well as the glasses he or she provided, is the worst they have ever experienced.
Unfortunately, this scenario is both totally unnecessary and altogether too common, to which I can personally attest after spending more than twenty years training over 400 opticians. An experienced and well-trained optician will, at the outset, anticipate this possibility and warn the patient. With the first onset of specific symptoms, the optician would enter into a relatively simple process of assessing how the symptoms might change as the demands on the eye are altered. The system – eyes, glasses and brain – would be examined as a whole, without ascribing too much value on each of the various symptoms. What would follow should be an honest discussion with the patient of the remainder of the process. In this case, time and the intentional use of the eyes in a variety of functions will retrain the muscles into the pre-asthenopic balance. Alas, this will not occur without considerable discomfort over a substantial period of time. Critical to this process is the understanding that this situation began long before the symptoms appeared. By the time the symptoms appear, the system is already out of balance.
Of course, now is the time to ask how this relates to organizational structures. In examining conflict in human systems, an initial examination must occur – quickly. Once again, the normal response is to accommodate stresses. While this may seem the nicest way to proceed, it is in fact the opposite. All symptoms are in need of examination as soon as they become apparent, but the response needs to be measured quickly. One thing that invariably exacerbates simmering conflict is non-response. Almost invariably, the time taken to respond is perceived as indirectly proportional to the level of interest and concern. If days or weeks are taken to fully access the situation before engaging the people involved, the persons exhibiting the symptoms will think that their concerns are falling on deaf ears. Most often, this kind of delay results in a heightened sense of anxiety and a drastic increase in triangulation or “parking lot” conversations. Alliance building is a natural response when people are not heard.
While there is no “foolproof” method to access conflict, certain commonalities exist which can give a general direction. One of the most basic questions is, “How did this symptom (tension) come to light?” If the answer is that the person feeling the tension came to discuss it with the individual they believe created it, there is a very good chance that the organizational system is fairly healthy. A direct, honest approach is not the sign of a conflicted system – dissimulation is. The other extreme to this is the situation in which someone tells someone else, who tells someone else, who tells someone else that brings it to the attention of the individual “causing” the conflict. If more than one person is involved in the transmission of the information, between the person with symptoms and the one “causing” them, there is a distinct likelihood that the offended person does not deal well with conflict. The more people that are involved in the information trail for any one conflict situation, or when multiple situations come to light in a similar convoluted manner, the more likely it is that the body has been trained into conflict avoidance.
There is, of course, a middle ground that is still healthy. If there is one person in the middle of the transmission, and that person is understood to be in a position of responsibility with regard to conflict management, then the system may be working as it should. One could say that conflict is best addressed directly, but the reality is that people bring their entire set of experiences with them into any organization, and those experiences may lead certain individuals to deal with tension indirectly. The other critical assessment, then, is determining if the situation is unique, or if there is a pattern of behavior involving multiple people. One situation communicated indirectly is a small problem which may be isolated. Several situations following similar circuitous chains of involvement indicates the likelihood of a pre-existing conflicted organization that is systemically unhealthy.
While not universally true, another pattern exists with regard to conflict. In a healthy body with relatively healthy organs, each symptom can generally be treated as free-standing conditions. Many times, however, there are more serious, underlying issues that radiate pain to close, sympathetic nerves. This, in fact, creates something of a smokescreen, whether or not that is apparent or intended. So much time can be spent assessing and treating the acute symptoms that the more chronic problems with essential organ(s) are completely overlooked and left untreated. Rather than easing the condition, this approach to treatment ends up putting the patient at severe risk.
Having run the metaphor into the ground, let’s concede that the patient is the organization in conflict. If the apparent conflicts are those that get all the attention, the more chronic disabling tensions may be left to fester and grow. It is essential to look beneath the obvious stresses to examine how each part of the organism functions, especially when the participants may not be consciously aware of the masking nature of the surface tensions. This cannot occur unless the participants in the conflict understand the way in which conflict works, and sign on to do a deeper examination. Being informed in this way may prevent the individuals from feeling ignored or disenfranchised because their symptoms aren’t being directly addressed, because they understand that a more organic approach to solving the problem is being undertaken. People are far more willing to endure some acute stresses if they understand that a more thorough process is in play – and they are much more likely to become active players in the discovery procedure.
The bottom line is that conflict is unavoidable – it is part and parcel of living and functioning. Secret or unexplored conflict is toxic, while tensions that are acknowledged and dealt with provide opportunities for growth and wholeness. Conflict resolution is an ongoing process in any healthy organization, although denial and avoidance are the more common responses that slowly kill initiative, movement and life. Tensions can be friend or foe, largely based on how the participants embrace or fear systemic exploration and open dialogue. One of the hallmark characteristics of great leaders is their ability to help people see below the pain of organizational stresses to find the empowering opportunities that are hidden below.