Uh-oh: What happens when we react to conflict poorly?

July 15, 2023

Hiker gazing at trail crossroads: double down or take responsibility

Initiating change is hard – it’s much easier to go along with the momentum of what’s familiar. And yet, there are times when we need to embrace something different.

On this blog, often we take the theoretical carrot approach to conflict: spotlighting the positive aspects of behaviour that we want to cultivate so as to inspire us to put in hard work to shift our habits. But sometimes it’s useful to take the theoretical stick approach to conflict: focusing on what we don’t want to happen in order to avoid the associated outcomes.

So today, let’s explore a darker timeline.

The year is 2031. Robert Blithe (colloquially known as Boisterous Bob) has been promoted to middle management in Future Company Co. Known for his notorious bluntness, he brings a new flavour to the leadership team – one that is strong and unyielding.

Bob’s door frequently swings open as he begins his tenure. One might assume that this equates to an "open door" policy – but in reality, it is a management style that more resembles a "revolving door."

Though arguably his strength, Bob’s bluntness has also been stirring up conflict and ruffling feathers amongst his staff. One by one, people have funnelled into his office to broach uncomfortable discussions. And one after another, they have stumbled out feeling frustrated and unheard.

Inevitably the same issues come up again and again, in an ongoing cycle without resolution. Bob staunchly believes his brash my way or the highway approach is what earned him the position and that standing his ground, on even the little things, will keep him there.

After a year, the stream of complaints wanes and eventually stops coming. Bob’s meeting calendar grows quiet. He feels justified and doubles down on his approach, reinforcing this take it or leave it character trait deeper. But the viewpoint of the staff around him does not match his perceived success. By not working together to reach resolutions, distrust has established itself. People have stopped frequenting Boisterous Bob’s door because of a new reputation he has developed: that of being defensive, closed-minded, and unapproachable.

The issues have not disappeared – instead, they have shifted underground because people don’t feel safe opening up to Bob. So, where do things go from here?

In one timeline, Future Company Co loses a bunch of good employees that, after trying to make things work, quietly move on to workplaces where they feel empowered. Indeed, they are embracing the leave it option of Bob’s philosophy. Turning our gaze to another timeline, Bob is sent to a Mediation Services training on Building a Respectful Workplace. Through study, workshopping, and reflection, he uncovers layers about the role he has played in the drama of conflict – over time, accepting responsibility for what might come to be realized as poor actions.

A lone person in a fortified castle, wondering why no one approaches them to talk

What happens if we act poorly in the face of conflict? Evidently from Boisterous Bob, quite a bit. For example:

  1. We create a barrier in communication
  2. We add another issue to the agenda
  3. The issue takes precedence over other concerns
  4. An obstacle is added to existing conflict and performance issues
  5. As a result, we damage relationships and breed mistrust

And yet: when we make mistakes, we often double down on our position.

Our intentions are complex, including conscious and unconscious motivations. We experience cognitive dissonance when we’ve invested time / money / reputation / effort in some activity that turns out to be wrong or foolish. From here, we can either choose a path of self-justification or one where we take responsibility. It is a crossroads that has deep ramifications; choosing to double down will reinforce an old behaviour that, down the road, makes it even harder to take responsibility.

The good news is we are not alone in this because we all make mistakes! And yes, it is good news, because along with this fact comes the permission to accidentally make a mess and then try again. Practice doesn’t make perfect, but it does tend to make better.

If you’d like to follow Boisterous Bob into a timeline informed by training that Mediation Services offers, we invite you to enrol in our Introduction to Conflict Resolution and Dealing with Defensiveness online courses. They provide solid foundations for dealing with conflict in both the present and future. And as to the inevitable tangles of the past, we can work with those as well.

If you have questions,
please don’t hesitate to call.


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