Everyone will experience conflict in the workspace, whether with a co-worker, customer, supplier, or even the boss, because in life, conflict is inevitable. By identifying your particular approach to conflict, using the symbolic ‘animals’ – turtle, teddy bear, fox, shark or owl – you will better understand how you manage that stress in your life.
Within our daily interactions, eventually your wants, needs, or ideas are bound to be contrary to those of another person but it is worthwhile to remember that it can always be minimised, diverted or resolved before it becomes an unmanageable monster. There will always be early indicators of trouble brewing with complementary resolution strategies that can be applied.
Conflict is never about simple inaptness, but is often connected to a previous issue. Wherever there is poor communication, power seeking, dissatisfaction with management style, weak leadership, lack of openness or a change in leadership, conflict begins.
The Shark cares nothing about relationships, but will do anything to win. The Turtle waits till the storm passes before coming out of his shell. The warm and fuzzy Teddy Bear just wants to get along. The Fox is a deal-maker that gives a little and takes a little but doesn’t get very far in strengthening the relationship. Finally, the wise old Owl symbolises the person who wants a win-win situation where we all meet our goals, and also preserve our relationships.
Which of these are you? You probably will also find that you change roles, depending on who you’re fighting with. Conflict is destructive when it takes attention away from other important activities and undermines morale. As a dispute polarises people and groups, cooperation is reduced and differences are sharpened and increased.
Conflict is constructive when it results in clarification of important problems and issues and results in solutions. It is important to involve the people concerned and resolve an issue that is important to them. Authentic communication helps release anxiety, emotion and stress and builds cooperation as people learn more about each other. By helping individuals develop understanding and skills, all involved join in resolving the conflict.
Conflict itself isn’t a problem. Problems result from the way people handle conflicts. Depending on how we see the situation, we choose to be one of the totem animals mentioned before. As long as we are not habitually one of these animals, we can choose how to behave.
Sometimes the only sensible thing to do is to stick our heads in our shell, be a turtle and let those with the most at stake work things out. Turtles deal with conflict by avoiding it. This can be useful if this isn’t the right time and place to address this issue but typically results in a “I lose, you lose” scenario. The turtle doesn’t get what they want, and the person they have the conflict with doesn’t get the problem resolved. However, this can be useful if the conflict is small and relationships are at stake or if you need time to cool off and get more information. Can also be right if there are more important issues pressing and you have limited time, or when you feel you have no power and feel there is no chance of getting your concerns met. Also, sometimes you are too emotionally involved and others around you can solve the conflict more successfully. However, when being a turtle, important decisions are often made by default, and postponing may just make matters worse.
Other times, being a big accommodating teddy bear is what is called for where working towards a common purpose is more important than any peripheral concerns. The teddy bear’s mantra is “I lose, you win” and fits when the trauma of confronting differences may damage fragile relationships. By appeasing others and downplaying the conflict you can protect the relationship. Teddy bears are useful when an issue is not as important to you as to the other person or if you realise you are wrong. Can also be useful when you want to let others learn by mistake or when you know you cannot win. Sometimes the timing is not right and you decide to build credit for the future with harmony as your goal. The teddy bear only works when parties have a good deal more in common than their differences, and often one’s own ideas don’t get attention, and credibility and influence can be lost.
And other times of emergency when someone has to decide quickly what must be done or command situations in which only one person can or should decide, then the shark is your guy. His “I win, you lose” features when goals are extremely important and one must use power to win. If you know you are right, time is short and a quick decision is imperative, then being a shark is appropriate. Also if a strong personality is trying to steamroller you and you need to stand up for your rights, but be warned, sharks can escalate conflict and losers can retaliate.
If the stakes are low enough (or high enough) for both parties to give up something important to keep the peace, being a compromising fox may be just the ticket. The fox ensures that each person can maintain some of their original position and all work towards the middle and the ‘common good’. The philosophy is one of “I bend, you bend” and works great when people of equal status are both committed to moderately important goals, and when time can be saved by reaching intermediate settlements on individual parts of complex issues. Negatively, this process can spawn cynicism and derail important values and longterm objectives. It also may not work if the initial demands are too great – especially if there’s no commitment to honour the compromise solutions.
And, in those situations where issues are strong and divisive but people truly need each other, an owl-like approach is called for. In such situations, only mutually developed and supported resolutions are any resolutions at all. Other solutions tend to fall apart because people are so intent on their own outcomes that they withhold or distort information, hide their true feelings, or are unwilling to honor commitments they halfheartedly agreed to.
The style that works best in most situations is the collaborative Owl. It is the owl’s “I win, you win” approach that is fundamental to teamwork and cooperation. By helping everyone achieve their goals while maintaining relationships, this harmonising animal works through differences and leads to creative solutions that will satisfy everyone concerned. The owl will only be effective if there is a high level of trust and you don’t want full responsibility but rather others to have ‘ownership’ of solutions. It is useful when the people involved are willing to change their thinking and work through their animosity and hard feelings. The drawback is that the process takes a lot of energy and some people may take advantage of other people’s trust and openness.
So we can see that there is a “right” way – or at least a more productive way – to resolve our conflicts than by the blind turtling, foxing, teddy bearing, and sharking people usually do. The way of the owl is the way of sharing our information and our results, the way of identifying mutual goals and keeping our harmony in the workplace. By being aware of how we behave when experiencing problems with others, we can better choose the right solution towards our current goals and move away from conflict being such a destructive force.
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