Tooth and Claw

Toward the end of a presentation to managers regarding collaborative conflict resolution skills, I paused for questions. Up shot a hand accompanied by the comment, “This approach sounds fine, but it doesn’t have any teeth!” Her exclamation was animated by the wonderfully dramatic gesture of both hands held up, curled into mock claws.

Since you were not there, here is a summary of how we arrived at that memorable moment. As a professional conflict resolver, I explained that I encourage leaders to facilitate the emergence of solutions from the people in conflict rather than imposing a resolution.

We must trust that the best answers lie within and between them and that these solutions can be crafted through facilitated dialogue and negotiation.

When I asked her to elaborate on her objection, she advocated telling people to get along and get back to work.

I understand. When you are exasperated by brawling staff members, imposing a solution from above feels potent and decisive. But you are mistaking a bold proclamation for efficacy.

In truth, a solution achieved by helping them talk and negotiate together is far more sustainable than the one they are forced to accept.

Here is evidence for this assertion. A 2003 study of small claims cases compared those that went through mediation (read “collaborative conflict resolution”) to those imposed by a judge (read “boss”).

  • Compliance rate with mediated agreement: 86%
  • Compliance with judge’s decision: 65%

So, 35% did not voluntarily comply with the judge’s dictate, while only 14% failed to follow through when they resolved the dispute in tandem with the other person and a mediator’s guidance.

Constructive workplace conflict resolution has enough teeth to make a great white shark jealous. It honors our capacity—and deep need—to authentically communicate, connect with others, and improve ourselves and our environment. That is profound and powerful stuff.

If you prefer, you can still rip and tear your way through conflict in your organization, but you will leave a trail of shredded waste rather than successfully resolved conflicts.