The greatest cause of failure in relationships, professional or personal, is not the differences between the parties concerned, but an inadequate philosophy of how to manage the conflict that arises from those differences.
This neatly describes one issue that can limit success in organisations.
As background, people are highly complex, multi-layered and multifaceted. The continual merging of our past and current experience into our day-to-day lives, is an ever-changing kaleidoscope of thoughts, feelings, desires, beliefs, opinions, judgements and prejudices.
Consequently, managing relationships with those around us at work can be challenging. The often unspoken reality for organisations is that their internal struggles of cooperating and handling differences of opinion are far greater than meeting the challenge of whatever external purpose unites us in the first place.
Whether it is a corporation, an NGO, Fathers 4 Justice, the local branch of a political party or our own intimate relationships, proceedings are often characterised, overtly or covertly, more by what divides rather than by what unites.
In the uncertain world that is our normal experience of life, we all too rarely experience the satisfaction that comes with absolute certainty and unity of purpose. The increasing tendency to gather together in virtual and actual groups of shared interests and common causes, is symptomatic of this powerful desire for cohesion, clarity and commonality of propose.
Indeed, one way of looking at what we want from work is to see it as an activity from which to derive meaning for our lives. Who doesn’t want to work with people and for a purpose that feels in tune with who we are and what we believe in – as well as it paying the bills?
The greater the challenge or risk of our efforts, the more cohesive we become. Talk to any combat soldier, London Marathon runner or Greenham Common veteran and you will hear, despite the risk, discomfort or deprivation, about a paradoxical experience; one of feeling more alive and connected than at any time outside those experiences.
It is one reason why some people are still drawn to war. Conflicts create powerful emotions of loyalty. They are times when life becomes blissfully simple. It is ‘us against them’ and the petty squabbles and neurosis of day to day life are momentarily transcended.
This psychology partly explains why conflict exists in organisations, and why it always will. Some people are drawn to conflict and we all know of people who seem more wedded to the fight than the issue.
Hence the need to think again about what new philosophy for managing conflict we need in order to manage our differences, as well as those who are drawn to conflict around us.
The difference of opinion is not the problem – in fact such differences often inspire new ideas, fresh thinking and energy that fuels progress – the problem is not having a way of identifying when the conflict starts becoming counterproductive or a risk, and then knowing what to do about it.