When I was a kindergartner, we had a two-page report card. Page one had to do with the basic academic skills we were trying to master, like reading, writing and arithmetic. Page two had to do with various personal skills we were trying to acquire or master, such as cutting with a scissors, paying attention, sitting quietly, etc.
One of these skill areas, I have learned through the years, is not only very important to succeeding as a kindergartner (a little kid), but also is critical to success as an employee or leader (a big kid). That skill area is “works and plays well with others.”
Think about it. How many of us enjoyed learning from teachers who were condescending controllers? How many of us enjoyed playing for coaches who were tyrannical? How many of us enjoy collaborating with teammates who are selfish me-firsters? How many of us enjoy working for managers who play favorites and/or encourage competition within the work group?
Challenging relationships are those in which unhealthy conflict is present. Technically, we might define conflict as “an expressed disagreement between two or more individuals or groups who perceive a struggle over values, scarce resources, status or power and who perceive that the other party intends to negatively affect their goals.” At work, conflict can arise from disagreements or differences over data, information, resources, interpersonal values, intrapersonal values and other organizational issues, including power, politics, and recognition or rewards.
Interestingly, conflict can positively affect individual and team effectiveness. The problem is that once aroused, conflict can be difficult to control. Sometimes it remains task-focused, facilitating creativity, open communication and team integration. In other instances, it loses its focus and undermines creativity, open communication and integrated effort.
Kenneth Thomas, a noted researcher in the area of conflict, has determined that how people in a team, group or organization believe their goals are related is important to understanding how effectively they work together. His research confirms that when people believe their goals are compatible, they know that as one succeeds, others succeed. There is increased cooperation because when one person is successful, others are simultaneously encouraged to reach their goals. This fosters a win-win climate and facilitates collaboration and trust.
On the other hand, some people may believe their goals are competitive – if they win, someone else must lose. A competitive employee needs to prove he or she is the most capable and that his or her ideas are superior; other people’s successes are frustrating to such people. Over time, a competitive approach to goal attainment fosters a win-lose climate and erodes collaboration and trust.
The accumulating evidence in the areas of positive psychology, strengths-based leadership approaches and emotional intelligence tell an increasingly compelling story: it is not only what you know, it is what you do with what you know, in collaboration with others, that determines how successful you will be.
But knowing does not always guarantee effective doing. With regard to conflict resolution, important skills have to do with managing and recognizing feelings and emotions, within oneself and with others.
“Understanding self and others,” therefore, emerges as a foundational competency for people who wish to do a better job in the area of conflict resolution. Thomas and his colleagues have identified five primary styles people tend to draw upon in conflict situations, reflecting the extent to which a person is assertive (“I win”) or cooperative (“I help you win”). All five modes are useful in some situations; each represents a set of useful interpersonal skills.
But like any other skill, once learned, we have a tendency to use our approach to conflict resolution repeatedly, sometimes to our detriment, because the approach does not always fit the people, circumstance or situation. Knowing when and how to use each mode is the essential element. This capability separates effective conflict resolvers from those who struggle to work in concert with others.