Picture this: You need some time alone, while your partner wants you both to go to a large music event that’s happening downtown.
You imagine the traffic, the parking, the noise, the expense and wonder if you’ll have the energy to make small talk with the friends you’ll invariably see. You try to explain this to him, but he counters with the fact that the two of you haven’t been on an outing together for a month, that you need to stop being a hermit, and how you’re going to love it when you get there.
You suddenly remember the time you asked him to go with you to the theatre and he decided to stay home.
Your stomach starts to bind up.
You’ve got a conflict.
On the one level, the conflict is resolvable – you can choose whether you stay or go together, or do your separate thing. Done.
But underneath the choice, there’s a conflict that will never go away as long as you’re together: the tension between taking care of yourself and taking care of your partnership.
This chronic tension between conflicting values that look like opposites but are really two ends of the same cord, is a polarity.
Clearly, in any healthy partnership, we need to “attend to self” AND “attend to the partnership.” If you do too much of one side without the other, you’ve got trouble.
Like inhaling and exhaling – you’ve got to do both!
Although you’ll always have the tension, the key to managing a polarity lives in two simple words: “both/and.”
Yin and Yang.
You want to get the best of both values while avoiding the problems that happen when you attend to only one side.
You don’t want to become either a self-sacrificing martyr or someone who thinks “it’s all about me”.
Maybe it’s time to step out of the specific conflict to look at what’s really at issue. You could ask: “How can we enjoy going out together – and still give each of us some space and downtime to take care of ourselves?”
Leadership is full of polarities. Leaders need to balance the need for change and stability, candor and diplomacy, justice and mercy, standardization and variation.
In our culture we often swing from one polar value to another without noticing how the two values will always be linked.
One political party cries out for individual rights and freedoms while the other emphasizes the collective good.
Then the parties demonize each other.
Sorry knuckleheads in Washington, D.C., but don’t you get it? Respect for individual freedom AND concern for the common good go together. We NEED that tension. So stop fighting and deal with it!
p.s. If you want to know more about polarities and leadership, I recommend the book Power Surge by my friend and colleague Margaret Seidler. It’s a very accessible fable-styled book that shows us how leadership polarities play out. Or, read the book that started it all: Polarity Management by Barry Johnson.
As I began to teach about conflict, I saw a bunch of hesitant faces with those “do we really have to deal with conflict?” expressions.
Most folks I know don’t like to deliberately face conflict. Sure, they can handle objective, professional conflict – with some detachment and calm. But stir deep emotion into the mix and they’re running for cover.
But without conflict, we can’t harness the fruits of collaboration and creativity.
Think a firm full of “yes” men and women!
We need conflict for creativity because conflict is about dealing with differences – and we’ll never get to the best solutions, and real innovation, if all we encourage is sameness.
We want to encourage some tension in our teams between competing values.
In a hospital system, that tension may be called the conflict between money and mission. In other firms, it may show up as a fight between marketing and finance. When we get down from our emotional high horses and stop fighting, it becomes clearer that we need to honor many diverse values in order to succeed. to see that. Chances are we need to maintain all those values –
Often a conflict in values shows up as a personality dispute. When a team calls me in with a conflict, they are usually experiencing some ugly symptoms such as communication breakdowns and differences in styles.
What’s harder to see is how underneath the personality conflict are built-in differences in values that may never go away. These are often polarities.
Manage the tensions that will never go away
Polarities are tensions between interlocking values that will never go away – conflicts that are embedded in a system – because you can’t have one pole without the other pole. Think yin and yang, day and night – we can’t have one side without the other.
I watched as an agency that always applauded individual achievement revised its focus and started promoting teamwork (while forgetting that individual achievement still mattered!) Sure enough, after a few years, the technical specialists started feeling like their work wasn’t adequately respected – and started wanting to leave – because all the rewards were going to teams.
The solution is simple – yet sometimes difficult to achieve: Think “both-and”: asking how do we honor both?
Some polarities we all know include the tension between balancing home and work. If we ignore either side, we’ll feel the consequences. Or trying separating our concern with our own self interest vs. our concern for others. Emphasize one without the other and you’re in for trouble.
Think both/and: team and individual
Going back to our team/individual example, as we’re thinking about rewards, processes, and how we use training dollars, we can add one simple question:
“How can we maximize team performance while encouraging individual excellence?”
Voila: our thinking is enhanced when we think both/and!
(And fyi – polarities are everywhere!)
Our stories need conflict
As a storyteller, I listen for conflict. Think how b-o-r-i-n-g it would be to read “Young entrepreneur has a dream. Successfully raises money. Builds team. Company succeeds – now she is rich.” (Alas, this kind of simplified story keeps being told!).
Instead, I want to hear about what really happened behind the scenes – the bumps along the way, the mistakes, the failures or almost-failures – everything that gives a story texture. Great stories always include some conflict. I want to root for a heroine who learns how to work her way through conflicts on her journey. She’s my gal – not the one for whom everything mysteriously works out!
Healthy conflict is needed in any group. How about you? What do you do to manage conflict creatively – for yourself and with others?