The Pyramid of Agendas: The Key to Managing Organizational Conflict
David G. Yurth
Copyright June 2004
All Rights Reserved
The Core Problem: In the final analysis, few organizations and perhaps fewer people operate with congruity. This dysfunction is largely inherited as a legacy of the misguided and severely crippled models relied on by our culture to define the relative roles of organizations and people in society and the workplace. The notion that an organization only has legitimate value when it is profitable is so deeply embedded in our culture that it operates unconsciously and automatically. Further, the feudal notion that the worker’s well-being, expectations, wants, needs and interests must be subordinated to the larger agendas espoused by the organization, continue to operate with unabated vigor in Mother Culture [Quinn, 1998][i].
Moreover, for the same reasons organizations mask their real intentions by publishing disingenuous vision and mission statements, individuals mask their real interests, needs and expectations, particularly in the context of the workplace, to protect themselves. Because a team member’s personal agendas are by definition required to be subordinated to those of the organization, it is generally not safe for the worker to allow his employment relationship to be jeopardized by allowing his co-workers, particularly managers and leaders, to see the real agendas which drive his performance in the workplace. No amount of assurance by a manager guaranteeing that sensitive personal information will be kept confidential will successfully bridge an institutional chasm of distrust and coercion (.Ramachaudran, 1994)[ii]
Accordingly, unless/until team leaders can find effective ways to come to grips with this fundamental disconnect, there is little probability that any processes characterized as “coaching” or which are touted by HR departments to be personally empowering to the workforce will demonstrate long term effectiveness. This, then, is the real challenge – to find ways to suspend the conventional values and practices which have come to characterize organizational dynamics so that a genuine alignment of interests and needs – agendas – can be facilitated in teams (Goldberg, 2001).[iii]
Employee Agendas: Once in a great while people experience a glimpse into their own inner workings in a way which is dispositive. Learning first hand, via a deeply moving and emotional experience, discovering who and what we are, what we are here to do and what we really want and need, is an experience increasingly sought after in the West. In our culture, we do not generally come to grips with these issues. It has only been in the past decade that facilitators have come to appreciate how we develop our basic, core beliefs and attitudes about ourselves and the rest of the human community. Identifying our hidden, personal, undeclared agendas requires us to confront this fearsome process head-on and this, in return, is the primary reason this dynamic has been ignored, resisted and excluded from conflict management tools.
Core Beliefs: In this context, conflict management can be a fearsome process because we are afraid to discover who we really are. As a result of the way we are hardwired and enculturated, at some point in early childhood, each of us creates a set of beliefs about ourselves. These beliefs arise as the product of our primitive, child-like attempts to attribute meaning to deeply moving, emotional experiences which we do not understand and for which we are unequipped to produce an explanation. Between the ages of 2-5 years old, each of us has an experience that defines our view of ourselves for the remainder of our lives. At that age, we are not equipped to deal with abstractions, either by our command of language, personal intellectual development or experience.
Thus, we cannot pretend to understand what our experience really means because (1) we are not capable of framing the kind of questions which would provide us with reliable answers and (2) we really do not want to find out if what we fear is true or not. The fundamental questions are few in number – “When you treat me this way, does it mean you do not love me?” – and cannot be asked by a three year old when an angry parent strikes them in a momentary outburst of anger. Instead, this kind of event is logged into memory in the context of a powerful set of emotional components which are so fearsome that the memory is buried too deep to be deliberately, consciously accessed years later.(Abdulbaghi, Uppsala Dissertations)[iv]
Our Personal Myths: The interpretation of this kind of event creates a myth – the myth that there is something inherently wrong with us, that we are undeserving of happiness or prohibited from behaving authentically, that we are unlovable or that we deserve to be abused, left hungry, abandoned or wounded, and so on (Kennerly, 2000).[v] This template becomes generalized as a filter through which all subsequent experience is viewed, which then frames our interpretation of our experience forever thereafter. It is this deeply embedded program which runs on auto-pilot during the rest of our lives. Without ever discovering whether this fundamental belief is true or not [because we never have an opportunity to ask the essential questions], we act as if it is true all our lives. This core belief frames our perception about who we are and how we feel about ourselves and the rest of the world. It is from this well-spring of distorted apprehension that our dysfunctional behaviors most probably arise. This template dictates in large measure how we apprehend the world and behave in it.
Therefore, when asked to declare personal agendas with genuine transparency, we are almost powerless to do so because in the truest sense, we do not know how. More importantly, without the assistance of genuinely competent, caring and compassionate facilitator support, we cannot find out.(Weiss, Moody, 1993)[vi] Because of the way we are architected, it is not possible for an individual to cut through the layers of defensive insulation created over years of life experience, to re-access the seminal events which originally framed our notions about ourselves and the world around us. It is simply not possible for the patient to facilitate himself with detachment. In this context, then, conflict management in an organizational sense encroaches on sacred territory, the territory of genuine identity and the soul. To the extent that this avenue of inquiry is invited and suitably undertaken, it can be extraordinarily valuable. To the extent that it is framed in an atmosphere of coercion, fear and mistrust, it can be altogether inappropriate and dangerous.
ISSUES AND BEST PRACTICES
A Simple Strategy:
We examine one specific area of conflict, namely interpersonal one-on-one relationships and team-related undertakings in a virtual work setting. Although there are similarities between all areas of team-related conflict, each takes a slightly different slant depending on the setting in which the conflict occurs.
Sometimes in interpersonal relationships, and more particularly in settings involving virtual teams, conflicts may exist that are not immediately apparent. If a team member has remained cheerful with everyone and suddenly demonstrates a change in behavior, chances are you are witnessing the symptoms of a conflict situation. In these instances, the team leader can generally address the problem by proceeding through the following steps.
The essential five-step process for managing conflict effectively is as follows:
* Define the conflict. * Exchange proposals and feelings. * Jointly develop objectives/alternatives. * Reach an agreement of mutual commitment and support. * Close and acknowledge your progress.
Often the most difficult stage is the stepping back by one of the parties – we call this “getting off it” – and seeing that there is a conflict, labeling the nature of the conflict, and getting agreement that there is some point, definable, over which there is a lack of agreement. Only when the problem is captured and contained can it best be dealt with. We recommend you follow these steps sequentially to arrive at a clear, agreed upon definition :
a. Acknowledge the conflict. b. State your desire to resolve it. c. Use an “I” message to present you perception and how you feel about it. d. Clarify to see if the other person agrees with your assessment. e. Allow the other person to make a clear, specific statement of the conflict.
The most remarkable aspect of the Conflict Definition step is that all too often, once defined, the conflict become nonexistent for the parties. Or, to the surprise of the parties, the mutual conflict is entirely different than each individual’s perception of the conflict.
[i] Quinn, D. (1998) My Ishmael. New York: Bantam Books.
[ii] Self-efficacy; V.S. Ramachaudran; Encyclopedia of Human Behavior; Academic Press, Inc. (FL)*; 4; 1994; 71-81; (11) Credits: Reprinted from ENCYCLOPEDIA OF HUMAN BEHAVIOR,#4, V.S. Ramachaudran
[iii] Implementing a professional development system through appreciative inquiry <coursepacks.xanedu.com/perl/dview?DON=1207748&PACKID=181318&HLVL=210 98&TYPE=CoursePack> ; Robert A. Goldberg; Leadership & Organization Development Journal; 2001; pg. 56
[iv] Childhood Trauma and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: A Developmental and Cross-Cultural Approach (Comprehensive Summaries of Uppsala Dissertations, 874), Abdulbaghi Ahmad.
[v]Kennerly, H., Overcoming Childhood Trauma, NYU Press (2000) ISBN: 0814747531
[vi] Weiss, B.L., Moody, R.A., Through Time Into Healing, Fireside (Sept 1993) ISBN: 0671867865