With a blended background in business management, psychology and organizational behavior, award-winning Daniels College of Business Management Professor Cynthia Fukami has a uniquely well-rounded perspective on workplace conflict. She has published more than 60 articles on a variety of relevant management topics, co-edited The SAGE “Handbook of Management Learning, Education and Development,” and has consulted with clients like Time Warner Telecom, Starz Entertainment and the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, to name just a few.
We chatted with Fukami recently to tap into her vast and multifaceted wisdom on the subject, and wound up getting an incredible universal “cheat sheet” for diffusing office clashes—a great reminder to “check yourself before you wreck yourself,” and something we’ll use internally from here on out. Here’s what she had to say.
Executive Education (EE): We’ve all experienced workplace conflict, and know it can be both disruptive and divisive. In your experience, have you ever found disagreement to be helpful?
FUKAMI: Absolutely! The best thing about disagreement is that it can lead you to question your assumptions. We operate on assumptions so much of the time, without even knowing it. What conflict can do—if you’re willing to let it—is to force you to step back and take a hard look at what you were assuming about either that person or that situation. Once you realize you were actually working on erroneous assumptions, you’re more likely to be willing to clarify where the other person is coming from. You may realize there wasn’t even a real conflict in the first place.
EE: We’ve talked to our constituents about the relationship between conflict and creativity. Do you think disagreement can spark innovation, and if so, why?
FUKAMI: I do. The fact that there is a conflict often means that we haven’t really come up with the best possible solution. A disagreement makes us stop and reconsider what we’re doing, and this very healthy process might lead us to new ideas, alternatives or other ways to improve the challenge at hand. If, as is often the instinct, we tried to pretend the conflict didn’t exist, we’d never gain access to these new pathways.
EE: Do you have a mental checklist for those of us who are uncomfortable with conflict to ensure that disagreements stay constructive so we can get to the good stuff?
FUKAMI: I don’t have a formal checklist, but it’s probably simpler than you think. There are a handful of concepts which, if you can keep them front-of-mind in potential conflict situations, work as natural diffusers.
- Common Ground. Your most important action item is to find the common ground between you and the person with whom you’re in disagreement. What do you have in common with them and how can you apply those commonalities to solving the problem at hand? You may differ with your colleague on the details of strategy, but you both agree that the success of the company is the most important thing.
- Questions vs. Assumptions. We’ve already talked about assumptions, and I can’t stress how important it is not to rely on these, particularly in conflict situations. Don’t just assume you know what your colleague means—ask questions! Encourage them to tell you what is driving their ideas, why they believe their approach is viable and why it’s important to them. Understanding is key to navigating conflict.
- Stick to the Substance. Conflict always starts with something substantive. But then, if the problem isn’t easily addressed, the interaction can move to an emotional level. That’s where things escalate and get complicated. When your discussion is moving in that direction, one of the best things you can ask yourself is “what is the substance?” This helps you back away from the personal and keep things professional.
- Collaboration vs. Conflict. Instead of seeing your conversation as an argument, try to reframe it in your mind as a collaboration: two people working together to solve a problem. Try to reframe your thinking to value the long-term relationship with that person more than the temporary victory of winning a single battle. Chances are, the things that foster an ongoing relationship may help you resolve the issue too.
EE: You certainly do make it seem simple! Do you think these methods vary for different levels of employees?
FUKAMI: They don’t. In fact, they don’t vary by culture or age either. It all goes back to sharing the same planet, playing well with others and creating a culture that includes civility. Same rules, different sandbox.
EE: Speaking of civility, we loved your World Series blog post about civility in baseball. How do you think the model of recognizing others’ differing perspectives translates to a professional setting?
FUKAMI: We’re always more open to somebody’s ideas if they’re expressed in a civil way; if we assume the best of people rather than the worst. But social media and other forms of virtual communication make that difficult; we often post public sentiments that we’d never say to someone’s face in a one-on-one setting. Lately, I’ve taken to re-reading my emails before hitting the send button with the filter of: would I say that out loud?
There have actually been studies conducted on civility among hospital nursing teams. They found that a lack of civil behavior between teammates not only had a negative impact on the productivity of individual nurses and the care team as a whole, but it also had a negative effect on the physical outcomes of patients in their care. And in business, as in baseball, we’re smarter together than we are separately. So we have to figure out a way to play together.
It’s all just sportsmanship, isn’t it?