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Embracing and resolving differences

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Embracing and resolving differences

Conflict is an inevitable and potentially valuable part of human existence. Yet most of us are ill-equipped to deal constructively with differences, whether in the personal, political or organisational context. For example, a 2009 UK survey of over 600 senior business people revealed that only 37 % regarded themselves as being adequately trained to cope with business conflict. Just how prevalent conflict is, is demonstrated by another UK survey in 2008 which found that the average UK employee spends over two hours a week dealing with conflict, which meant in total more than 370 million working days were lost in the UK the previous year alone. Middle managers in organisations experience most role stress.

Stress leads to conflict, which leads to stress. A recent WHO study found that of the 1.6m people on average who die per year as a result of violence, 55% were as a result of suicides. Given high levels of conflict in South Africa generally but also in the typical SA workplace, chances are that the situation is, at best, similar here. In fact, our experience working with many organisations in both the private and public sectors suggests that many organisations are indeed in distress. Low levels of trust, uncooperativeness, high levels of staff turnover and low productivity abound.

Given a world that is full of conflict and a human race that tries to resolve it without the necessary skills to do so, it is no wonder that we seem to struggle along from one conflict situation to the next without seemingly progressing to a point where we can resolve our differences peacefully, quickly and cost effectively.

A general lack of conflict resolution skills is not the only cause. A big contributor is our view of conflict is something that must be avoided. Because of this, it is no wonder that when we see conflict we either fail to deal with the issue, or we go into attack mode, using whatever power or legal remedies is available to us. Link this to a general unwillingness to listen to those who have different views to our own, and the way many of our so-called ‘service delivery protests’ develop and turn out starts making sense: instead of pro-actively seeking joint solutions, the police are called in or recourse is taken to the courts to stop the protests. These only provide short-term relief, however.

If and when the people concerned are listened to, relationships are already at a low ebb, making the search for constructive and cooperative solutions difficult and sometimes even impossible. Yet, as one of the early pioneers of conflict resolution, Mary Parker Follett, once said: “It is possible to conceive conflict as not necessarily a wasteful outbreak of incompatibilities, but a normal process by which socially valuable differences register themselves for the enrichment of all concerned”.

One challenge therefore is to begin to see conflict not only as inevitable but also as a potential opportunity to resolve differences, find common ground and strengthen relationships. Within organisations this translates into becoming conflict wise, i.e. harnessing the power of conflict to promote understanding, cooperation and growth.

In Jim Collins’ best-selling book, Good to Great, he recalls how the 11 “great” organisations (they had each delivered cumulative returns at least 3 times greater than the market over a 15-year period) all displayed a similar approach to dealing with conflict: “All the good-to-great companies had a penchant for intense dialogue. Phrases like ‘loud debate’, ‘heated discussions’ and ‘healthy conflict’ peppered the articles and interview transcripts from all the companies”. A 2003 UK survey of top management teams also found that the more productive ones treated conflicts as opportunities for collaboration to achieve the best solution for the organisation as a whole.

Another obstacle is the mind set with which we usually approach differences: we assume that our interests are necessarily in conflict with those of people we contend with and therefore fail to exploit the common ground and collaborative opportunities that most often do exist and instead take up opposing positions to engage in a tit-for-tat battle for supremacy.

Take the ‘Spear’ issue, for instance: the debate almost immediately started off with opposing, extreme demands, one for protection of individual dignity and the other for protection of freedom of expression. The ‘frame’ going into the debate was one of opposing and irreconcilable differences that could only be resolved through the use of power (sometimes violence) or the decision of a judge. Eventually a solution of sorts was found. Yet, despite the subsequent political hype about a resolution having been found, the damage had been done not only to relationships and reputations but also to our young democracy and its institutions. Instead of approaching our differences from a narrow winner-takes-all mind set where the goal is victory and not agreement, we have a choice to view differences in the way Parker-Follett suggested at the turn of the previous century.

Poor leadership or outdated leadership models also contribute to our inability to effectively deal with differences. Instead of inclusive leadership styles that would allow decision-makers the chance to hear others’ concerns, viewpoints and suggestions before making a decision that affects them, our politicians and captains of industry promote the outdated idea of ‘decisive’ (i.e. exclusionary, power-based) leadership. Business schools are sometimes to blame as well because of the kind of profit-driven rather than a stakeholder relationship model of leadership they promote. As a recent article in the California Management Review notes: “The emphasis on analysis has produced a generation of MBA’s who are critters with lopsided brains, icy hearts and shrunken souls”.

There are no doubt many other contributing factors, some of which we have little or no control over. However, we do have control over things like our willingness to listen and not just hear; to move away from apathy to action; to stop being victims and instead become masters of our own destiny; and, most of all, over the attitudes that we bring into those difficult conversations.

It is perhaps apposite to end off with this powerful reminder from Parker-Follett, written shortly before her death as war clouds started gathering yet again over Europe: “We have thought of peace as passive and war as the active way of living. The opposite is true. War is not the most strenuous life. It is a kind of rest cure compared to the task of reconciling our differences... From War to Peace is not from the strenuous to the easy existence; it is from the futile to the effective, from the stagnant to the active, from the destructive to the creative way of life. The world will be regenerated by the people who rise above these passive ways and heroically seek, by whatever hardship, by whatever toil, the methods by which people can agree.”

Prof Jordaan is head of the Africa Centre for Dispute Settlement (ACDS) at Stellenbosch University. The Centre forms part of the University’s HOPE Project, a campus-wide initiative through which the institution uses its teaching, research and community interaction expertise to seek sustainable solutions for pressing challenges in South Africa and the rest of the continent.

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