The Four Things You Can Do to End Conflict at Work

This is a story about how interpersonal conflict killed the world’s largest communications company. It all started on May 12, 1865 when a Finnish engineer named Fredrik Idestam started a company called Nokia. In the beginning it sold paper, then electricity, and then rubber galoshes. As the market continued to evolve, the company got incredibly good at finding success with new products. So much so that by the 1990s, Nokia was the largest communications company in the world.

But we already know this story, don’t we? We know that Nokia failed to produce a viable smartphone, and that the iPhone eventually killed their business with over 40,000 people losing their jobs. It’s tragic, but that’s life when you don’t have the vision to create technology that your customers want.

So, why rehash a tired disruption story? Because Nokia’s fall wasn’t about technology, it was about people.

It’s true. In the year 2000, Nokia’s research lab built a full-color touchscreen phone with a single button beneath it. That’s seven years before Apple’s first smartphone, and many have said that the Nokia prototype was as good as the first generation iPhone.

Why didn’t that product ship? Infighting between different departments prevented decision-makers from ever seeing the prototype. That is, the one thing that could have saved over 40,000 jobs never even got a look from senior executives because people couldn’t get along. That’s how human conflict kills companies.

We’ve all seen it. The tension, the meeting after the meeting, the endless emails, and even the occasional blowout. Research suggests that many American workers spend over two hours per day in conflict or drama, which costs organizations hundreds of billions of dollars each year.

The question remains: What can you do to transform a team from conflict to cohesion?

There is no list in any article that will get you there, but doing the four things below can help.

  1. Air it out. There is a reason that most boxing matches end with a hug and traditional wars end with a treaty. Active conflict fuels peace. In the workplace, however, conflict is typically passive, and passive battles never end. Why? Because if nobody acknowledges that there is a conflict, you can’t stop it. The first step is for all parties to own that there is a conflict and to air their grievances. From here you can uncover root causes.

  2. Break the cycle with an olive branch. Most conflict is cyclical. There are a series of call-and-response behaviors on each side that trigger a reaction from the other (e.g., Nancy didn’t invite me to her last project update meeting, so I won’t invite her to mine). In his book, The Evolution of Cooperation, Robert Axelrod found that an unexpected olive branch can actually break the cycle of conflict. And those who consistently extend olive branches (even if unreciprocated) are more likely to find success with long-term relationships and negotiations.

  3. Cooperate on a new venture together. The most effective peacebuilding initiatives in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have been joint infrastructure and water projects. While it’s no panacea, getting away from the mediating table to work together on a new initiative can be a great way to redefine the dynamic and build new cooperative bridges.

  4. Connect as humans, not coworkers: In 2016, Google conducted a study to uncover the secret ingredient in their most successful teams. After nearly two years, they discovered that the key to a high performing team is psychological safety (i.e., A sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish you for speaking up). How do you get there? Whether it’s the pain of a divorce, the joy of climbing a mountain, or the magic of falling in love, the first step to psychological safety is to share personal stories to find shared humanity.

So, that’s it. Most of us won't have a meteoric rise like Nokia, but all of us can avoid the thing that made them fall. By creatively confronting conflict head-on, we can find new peace.

We can build more bridges than we burn.

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