#WorkTrends Recap: The Secret to Conflict Without Casualties

Every team needs a little healthy conflict.

That’s not the kind of thing any HR leader would want to put on the break room wall. You’re not going to find inspirational posters about conflict.

But Dr. Nate Regier is on a mission to show people, including teams at work, that conflict is healthy. Conflict itself isn’t bad, he says; it’s all about how we respond to it. I asked him about harnessing the power of conflict, which he explores in his new book, “Conflict Without Casualties.

Conflict Isn’t Complicated

First, Dr. Regier says, we should stop and think about what conflict really is. It’s less complicated — and more pervasive — than you might think. “Conflict is simply the gap between what we want and what we’re experiencing, at any point in time,” he says.

For example, the gap could be that you want to be at work at 8 a.m. and instead, you’re stuck in a long line at Starbucks. Or it could be something more significant: You want to feel aligned with your team but you don’t.

“There’s conflict all the time, everywhere,” Regier says. “The first important thing is to simply recognize that and demystify it.” We need to begin by understanding that conflict isn’t good or bad.

Conflict Can Be Useful

Conflict gets a bad rap. Regier says that if you start typing the word “conflict” into Google, the suggested searches that come up are about reducing and managing conflict. “As soon as you see the word, everyone says, ‘manage it, mediate it, reduce it, control it,’” he says. “We have this myth that conflict is bad, and that people always get hurt, so we need to make it go away. But conflict is energy. And if we get rid of the energy, then we’re just left flat, bored and uncreative.”

A lot of people hate conflict, and avoid it at all costs. But Regier says avoiding conflict is unhealthy — and has negative consequences in the long run.

He says he worked with someone who said, “Well, I just avoid conflict. I just don’t do it.” When he asked what she did instead of facing conflict, she said, “I don’t sleep well, I’m preoccupied, I fume, I gossip.”

Avoiding conflict does affect us. “We’re spending that energy one way or another, whether we’re tackling the problem or whether we’re stewing, and gossiping, and avoiding. We have a real energy crisis here. Conflict is an unbelievable source of energy, but we’re misusing it. And there are just so many upsides if we can start thinking differently,” he says.

How We Respond to Conflict Matters

So how can we engage in conflict in a healthy way? Regier says we should think about how we approach the core struggle in every conflict situation.

“We are struggling to close that gap and get what we want, and to reconcile those differences. We can struggle to close that gap against each other, in an adversarial way. And then that becomes drama, because there’s a winner and a loser. Or we can struggle with somebody to create something, and that’s what we call compassion.”

“Most people think compassion is caring, sympathy, ‘my heart goes out to you,’” he says. “But really, compassion, if you go to the Latin root, means ‘to suffer with.’ ‘Com’ means alongside, or with, and ‘Passion’ means to suffer or struggle. So, ‘compassion’ means to struggle with, which is the exact opposite of ‘drama,’ which is to struggle against.”

Once you decide to take the compassionate route and struggle together, it’s important to get clear about what we really want. Instead of saying, “I want you to stop yelling at me,” dig deeper and think about what you’re really asking for. What you want is to feel safe, valued and connected. And if you can identify that and talk about it, you might be able to work together to figure out how to make that happen.

When Regier works with teams, he looks at how their everyday processes and procedures either reinforce the healthy rules of engagement around conflict or reinforce drama. How do they talk to each other, write memos to each other and work together every day? Are they struggling with each other or against each other?

This work is incredibly important for all businesses, he says. “The next generations are very disillusioned with capitalism because they’re seeing casualties of conflict. I think businesses have a huge opportunity to show the next generation that we can balance compassion and accountability and pursue business goals while making a positive difference in people’s lives. And there don’t have to be human or environmental casualties in the process.”

I’m in — what about you?

To learn more about healthy responses to conflict, check out Dr. Regier’s book, “Conflict Without Casualties.

5 Ways to Earn Trust: The Ultimate Competitive Advantage

Are you looking for that leadership silver bullet that will propel you past the competition? You can take public speaking courses and enroll in an MBA program or you can attempt the single easiest feat for which an individual can strive, trustworthiness.

Leadership is built on one core concept—trust. Without it, you can forgo every other attribute espoused by management experts. Confidence without trust is an egomaniac. Charisma without trust is a charlatan. And vision without trust is a hypocrite. This was supported by a meta-analysis study from leading trust researcher and Georgetown University professor Daniel McAllister.

Published in the Academy of Management Journal, McAllister concluded that leaders viewed as trustworthy generate a culture where team members:

  • display greater innovation, agility, and responsiveness to changing conditions;
  • take risks because they believe they will not be taken advantage of;
  • do not expend needless time, effort, and resources on self preservation; and
  • go above and beyond to exhibit higher performing customer service, brand loyalty, and problem solving.

This leads to a competitive advantage through significantly higher commitment, satisfaction, retention, and performance. Similarly, research from the Ken Blanchard Companies found a strong correlation between trust and the behaviors associated with highly productive employees—discretionary effort, willingness to endorse the organization, performance, and a desire to be a “good organizational citizen.”

“Trust is the glue of life. It’s the most essential ingredient in effective communication. It’s the foundational principle that holds all relationships.”—Stephen Covey

Before you get insulted that I’m explaining something as elementary as the benefits of trust, have you heard of the Edelman Trust Barometer? The ETB has surveyed tens of thousands of people across dozens of countries about their level of trust in business, media, government, and nongovernmental organizations. In its 17th year, this is the first time the study found a decline in trust across all four institutions in all 28 countries surveyed.

For leaders, one of the more disturbing findings of the ETB is the shocking lack of confidence in leadership—63% of participants said corporate CEOs are either not at all or somewhat credible. That means only 37% maintained the credibility of CEOs, a 12-point drop from last year, and this is consistent around the world. CEOs are more trusted than government leaders (29%), but that’s setting a pretty low bar. Plus, with this “trust void,” only 52% said they trust business to do what is right.

So if trust is important and society is not feeling it, what can we do? Good news: you can (re)build trust. Here are five techniques to consider:

  1. Recognition, Recognition, Recognition. To increases trust between leaders and employees, nothing does it faster than acknowledging their achievements. It indicates you are paying attention and reinforces positive behaviors.
  2. Show Compassion. Did I say recognition is the fasted way to build trust? It won’t mean anything if you don’t already have a foundation of respect. Just try influencing someone who doesn’t respect you; see how engaged they are in your ideas. Treat your team like real-life people—listen to their ideas, care about their feelings, and empathize with their concerns.
  3. Keep to Your Word. You can’t build trust without following through on promises. Your team needs to believe that what you say is sincere, so follow through on commitments.
  4. Don’t Hide Your Humanity. Being human means showing your imperfections. Your ability to discuss your mistakes and share what you have learned from it makes you more relatable. No one is concerned with transparency for the good stuff; they need you to fess up to faults, so show your vulnerable side.
  5. Smile. If you don’t want to do something substantive to build your trust and would prefer a gimmick, consider a recent study published in Psychological Science where convicted murders with trustworthy faces received more lenient sentences then their peers with untrustworthy faces. The key, it seems, is that a gentle smile increases how trustworthy others perceive you. Keep in mind, that it needs to be gentle—too big can be seen as duplicitous or insincere, while too small may be seen as sarcastic or leering.

“I doubt that we can ever successfully impose values or attitudes or behaviors on our children certainly not by threat, guilt, or punishment. But I do believe they can be induced through relationships where parents and children are growing together. Such relationships are, I believe, build on trust, example, talk, and caring.”—Fred Rogers

We live in untrustworthy times, but that does not mean we have to lead in an untrustworthy manner. Generate a culture where honesty, transparency, and truth are the basis of your organization. This must start at the top of the organizational hierarchy with you. The team will trust you once you establish that you trust the team. It may take time, but as Seth Godin says, “Earn trust, earn trust, earn trust. Then you can worry about the rest.”