What’s your conflict strategy?

Courtney McDonald • 8 minutes

So often, particularly in higher ed, meetings are where we live. A librarian by trade, I’m a veteran of numerous task forces, working groups, and (wait for it) … faculty committees. My work in project management, product ownership, and content strategy for various research library websites and web applications has included work with remote software development teams and large, diverse internal stakeholder groups. In addition to occasionally providing the opportunity to intone, These are the days of our libraries, that time in meetings has sparked some questions.

First: why do we meet so much? Ostensibly, meetings are about communication. We might meet to share status updates and get quick feedback; we might meet to engage deeply with each other about the project at hand; it could be a working meeting where there are tangible outputs. Perhaps we are just meeting because that’s what we do. And, maybe sometimes we are meeting for safety – so we know (and can prove) that everyone had an opportunity to give input, or at least was informed ahead of time, or we need a more public forum to avert an unpleasant outburst. Regardless of the reasons why we meet, since meetings make up a sizeable proportion of our work-life, it matters whether they are truly effective because if and when they’re not, it has an impact on the overall work environment.

Here’s another question: How would you describe a healthy work environment? I’m sure you have your own picture but I imagine we can agree that it would include elements of effective communication such as listening respectfully, engaging in real dialogue, respecting expertise, and proactively broadening the conversation as appropriate. That said, there is one more key ingredient to nurturing a healthy work environment that’s often overlooked, and it’s turned out to be crucial to my work. (And yes, it’s a question.)

What’s your conflict strategy?

Stop me if you’ve heard this one

Raise your hand if any of these sound familiar:

  • Management solicits feedback on a strategic plan. The final product bears no sign of the suggested edits, additions and changes from staff.
  • You’re in a meeting. There’s a difference of opinion on how to proceed on some particular angle of a project and, because it’s getting uncomfortable and killing the agenda, someone  – possibly even you! – agrees to do some research and share back with the group. Time passes. No follow-up. A decision gets made anyway.
  • You overhear a colleague complaining about a project and realize, with horror, they’re complaining about you. You just met with them this morning and picked up no clues that they were displeased or unhappy.
  • An hour before deadline, a client, colleague, or direct report hands you yet another half-baked summary – lots of typos, missing content, something along those lines – and yet again, you tell yourself it’s not that big of a deal, there’s no time to talk it through, then make the adjustments yourself and send it forward.
  • You get an email summarising the outcomes of what sounds like an important planning meeting about a project you’re working on … but you weren’t invited to the meeting.

As you’ve likely sussed out from the title of this piece, the common thread to all of these scenarios is that someone didn’t have an effective conflict strategy (if you will). The administration in the first example didn’t create the space for real engagement with employees about their plan: it got complicated, they had a timeline, they moved on. In the second example, while it wasn’t too hard to say you’d look into it, writing back was sticky or difficult and kept falling to the bottom of your to-do list — whoops. The third and fourth examples are sort of a yin and yang: each points to a lack of self- and situational awareness on one side, and a desire to avoid uncomfortable conversations on the other; and, well, it sounds like anything or everything could be going wrong in the final example.

Other things you might be thinking right now, as you consider the themes in these examples:

  • How can you have a robust strategic plan if it doesn’t take into account the perspectives and strengths of the whole staff?
  • Wait, what’s going on with not including everyone on the project team?
  • How is someone supposed to realize they’re underperforming if nobody tells them what’s expected of them?
  • Doesn’t that manager realize that it’s demoralizing to have someone redo your work every time but never talk with you about it?
  • Who are these [insert favorite descriptor of conflict avoiders] that won’t just say something?

Everywhere we turn, someone’s not being respectful of someone else’s time, expertise, feelings. True, this is part of life – but maybe it doesn’t have to be part of every single day of your life. It seems obvious to me now, but this was a game changer the first time it dawned on me: giving space for disagreement through effective conflict management is a key ingredient to nurturing a healthy work environment that promotes diversity, inclusion and respect.

What do we mean: diversity, inclusion, respect

Fair warning, folks: I am a librarian. So, before we go any further, let’s get on the same page about our terms, defined as follows by our friends at Merriam-Webster:

  • Diversity: “the condition of having or being composed of differing elements : VARIETY – especially: the inclusion of different types of people (such as people of different races or cultures) in a group or organization; an instance of being composed of differing elements or qualities : an instance of being diverse”
  • Inclusion: “the act of including; the state of being included” [I hate a self-referential definition, so may I also add that ‘including’ means, “to take in or comprise as a part of a whole or group”]
  • Respect: “an act of giving particular attention : CONSIDERATION; high or special regard : ESTEEM; the quality or state of being esteemed”

Too often, we confuse representation with diversity, consensus with inclusion, and civility, which I’ve seen interpreted to mean ‘rolling your eyes but allowing someone X minutes of uninterrupted airtime within a meeting,’ with respect. Taken together, these misunderstandings create an environment where disagreement is impossible – there’s simply not enough oxygen in the room. If you can’t honestly and authentically disagree, real communication is off the table. Without real communication, it’s hard to accomplish much of anything whether your goal is related to content strategy, project management, or even where you’re meeting your friend for dinner.

Anatomy of a perfect storm

Let’s go farther – can you really feel respected if you don’t feel heard? What if you can’t be heard, either because your voice is crowded out, or because you yourself have simply silenced it after too many unsuccessful tries? In my humble opinion, some of the reasons we don’t ‘air our grievances’ are:

a) We don’t really know how to do it respectfully and specifically;

b) We haven’t practiced disagreeing; and, optionally,

c) Due to a) and b) we wait too long, our disagreements compound, and become harder and harder to articulate.

This creates a perfect storm, if by perfect storm one means the ideal conditions for ineffective conflict management. All of those objections, niggling differences, passive-aggressive dodges, and unresolved office conflicts (e.g.., what everyone knows Judy did last week to the office microwave but won’t admit) just marinate together. When the storm does finally break, it often does so with raised voices, a strongly worded email, and/or a blaze of negative emojis.

Honesty break

At this stage, in the service of the kind of authentic dialogue I am espousing, I would like to admit that I myself struggle with conflict avoidance in my personal and professional life. I’ve given myself stomach-aches. I’ve over-prepped for the ‘confrontation’ and bailed at the last moment. Worse, I’ve under-prepped and let slip those things that were supposed to stay in the thought bubble over my head.

So many factors – tenuous employment, being part of a marginalized group, a toxic workplace culture – can make even seemingly innocuous points of disagreement fraught with risk, much less anything that’s a more fundamental conflict. On that note, project managers and supervisors have an important part to play in creating and maintaining a space that’s safe by actively pursuing how we can use those positions of power to best support our team / direct reports, by setting boundaries and expectations in internal and client interactions, by designing and holding effective meetings, and by advocating for the same up the line to higher levels of management.

That said, I believe that we each have opportunities for personal agency if we are determined to teach ourselves to disagree honestly and productively, and to learn how to grant others that crucial space as well. At this point you may be wondering, What if it turns out I’m the only one in my workplace who’s interested in working on my conflict strategy? That’s a great question, and I don’t have a great answer. You might spark a change in the culture; or, the culture might stay the same. You might even decide to leave that culture. That’s the thing about personal agency — you never can tell what people might do.

What now?

If you’re still reading, I’m going to assume that you agree that enabling respectful, honest disagreement through effective conflict management leads to better communication, better outcomes, and (hopefully) a workplace that is healthier and more inclusive. You might also agree that all of those things create a more diverse working culture that honors individual experience and expertise – but you might not. Anyway, what now, because you’ve got a meeting in 15 minutes and I need to finish up this article.

  1. Commit. Saying yes to effective conflict management is a long and sticky business. There are personal costs of finding your way to that yes: a commitment to openness, authenticity, persistence, and to pursuing personal humility. You may be thinking, ‘Gross! It’s like some kind of after school special in here.’ Well, too bad!
  2. Study. Not to get all human-resources on you, but: effective conflict management is like any other knowledge, skill or ability (KSA). It will require attention and study. So get going. If you work for a place that has access to professional development courses that are relevant, take them. Start noticing who seems to handle conflict well at work, in meetings, at home, and ask them about it. Read some books. I’m an academic librarian, so of course I have recommendations: Thanks for the Feedback and Difficult Conversations.
  3. Practice.  The more you practice, the more you’ll be able to effectively, respectfully, and articulately communicate in the moment, whether that means agreeing or disagreeing. Recently I read a helpful thread on Twitter in which Brittany Paloma Fiedler explored the idea that “Action requires practice.” In short: you are probably not well advised to begin your journey of honest feedback and respectful disagreement with a big, scary scenario, like telling your direct report her performance isn’t up to par, or holding steady on your proposed price when a desirable client is looking for a price cut. Instead, start with something small and low-risk. Start with strangers – after all, the stakes are much lower, because odds are you’ll never see them again. Ask a question about the menu; tell the bartender that actually, you’re sorry to say you don’t like that wine and can you try another; or be prepared to say “No, thanks” to the perfume counter attendant instead of entering through a different door.  At work, small steps might include declining the world’s most inconvenient time for a meeting; reminding your client that since the copy was due last week, the next set of wires now won’t be available until next week; or volunteering a place you’d rather not go when the inevitable ‘where to go for lunch’ conversation starts. You might need to take time ahead and write down what you plan to say in situations that are uncomfortable for you.

Whether you work in higher ed or another industry, solo or in teams, in content or in design, having an effective conflict management strategy creates an environment that supports real communication. Real communication is what’s going to enable you and your colleagues (and clients) to be more productive, more innovative, more efficient, and (maybe) even just plain happier. So, I’ll finish by asking again: what’s your conflict strategy?

Confab 2019

Courtney is speaking at Confab in Minneapolis this April. They’ve secured a fantastic line-up, so it’s no wonder they’ve sold out already. You can still find out more about the conference and join the waitlist.

What’s your conflict strategy?


About the Author

Courtney McDonald

Learner Experience & Engagement Librarian, University of Colorado Boulder

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