Conflict Resolution Meets Social Technology A New App Offers New Ways of Navigating Disagreements When Power Matters

by Peter T. Coleman, Robert Ferguson
December 2015

Most of what you have learned about conflict resolution is often wrong. Or at least it’s ineffective in the workplace between people with unequal power. We have been conducting conflict resolution workshops for decades and have often had participants ask us, “What if you have a conflict with someone with more power?” Or, “The people who work for me do not seem to be willing to disagree with me. What can I do to make them more candid?” And we realized that neither we nor anyone else had great answers to those questions. How can we get to win-win when power differences get in the way?

The whole idea of win-win negotiations was first popularized by the best selling book Getting To Yes. To this day it is a great book, one of the most innovative and insightful books ever written about conflict and negotiation. But even GTY has little to say about disagreements when power is unequal.

However, a new, free, interactive app developed by our team at Columbia University goes further to offer strategies for handling disagreements up and down the food chain at work. The Making Conflict Work App shows you exactly what to do to reach your goals depending on what kind of leader you work for.  And shows leaders how to get subordinates to be more candid, more creative, and to take responsibility for problems instead of waiting to be told what to do. The app picks up where GTY and other great books on conflict resolution leave off: it talks straight about how to deal with disagreements when the other party is your boss, or you are the boss and you want others to be more honest with you.

The app, based on the research published in our latest book, Making Conflict Work (and in a recent article in Journal of Organizational Behavior), is now available for free from the Apple Store (for iPhone) and on Google Play (for Android). The app walks the viewer through 5 short questions, and then offers specific strategies and tactics for resolving conflicts constructively in a variety of different situations.

Conflict resolution should be about more than making a conflict go away, or agreeing to disagree, or even finding common ground. It’s really about reaching your goals when someone else disagrees with you. Maybe your are a leader or business owner and you want your people to share their best ideas instead of playing it safe, or you want them to tackle problems and make decisions without waiting to be told what to do. If you want that, you have to let disagreements happen. You have to get people to talk openly. The new app shows you how.

If you have never worked for a boss who dominates during disagreements, some day you will. Everybody does time with a dictator. You could choose to just suffer through it for the sake of your paycheck and hope things change, but the app can tell you how to do more than that. It shows you how to reach your goals even when your boss doesn’t seem to care about them. We call this approach “strategic appeasement,” and it shows you how to increase your informal power even when your title stays the same.

Teamwork is great, but sometimes teamwork gets in the way of your goals instead of helping achieve them. There are even times when teamwork gets in the way of the organization’s goals. While we can imagine cries of “Blasphemy!” from mediators, teambuilding experts, and many leaders, it is true. Teamwork can lead to inefficiency or even failure. As valuable as it is, there are situations and conflicts where the best thing you can to is to work around the team. The new app shows you when and how.

You won’t hear very many experts on conflict resolution say this, but we also think dominating your employees during disagreements– if used smartly and sparingly – is both necessary and constructive. Being overly cooperative or understanding in the face of conflicts with your employees at work can undermine your authority, decrease morale, and leave your staff confused and unmotivated. Just as it can be destructive to dominate in too may conflicts with people who work for you, it can be destructive to not do it enough. Our new app shows how to use power during disagreements in ways the fit the specific situation, and serve the organization over the long term.

If you know someone at work who is very skillful at navigating disagreements up and down the organization, we would say that person is high in Conflict Intelligence. That’s our term to describe the knowledge and skills necessary to turn the energy of conflict into something positive rather than something destructive. Someone high in conflict intelligence knows how to bring out the honesty and the best ideas from subordinates, by making them unafraid to say what they really think. A conflict intelligent person knows how to disagree with his or her own boss, or when to keep quiet and find other ways to reach a significant goal.

Most of us get stuck in one or two chronic ways of responding to conflicts at work – and we therefore miss many opportunities to get things done and build stronger relations. Our research shows that people who are more adaptive in the face of conflict are happier and healthier at work. But this takes knowledge, skill and practice. The Making Conflict Work app shows how.

Biography



Peter T. Coleman is the Director of ICCCR and Professor of Psychology and Education. He holds a Ph.D. and M.Phil. in Social / Organizational Psychology from Teachers College, Columbia University and a B.A. in Communications from the University of Iowa. He has conducted research on social entitivity processes (ingroup/outgroup formation), gender discrimination in organizations, the mediation of inter-ethnic conflict, ripeness in intractable conflict, conflict resolution & difference, and on the conditions which foster the constructive use of social power.  Professor Coleman recently co-edited a book entitled The Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice (2000), published by Jossey-Bass and The Five Percent: Finding Solutions to Seemingly Impossible Conflicts.


Robert Ferguson, PhD, is a psychologist, management consultant, executive coach and author.

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