Once upon a time…
Or (for those like me), a long time ago in a galaxy far far away….
As a child, you will recall that's how many stories would begin. Fairytales and stories seemed to always follow a similar plot of conflict between good and evil. It's no wonder that we carry these same archetypes into adulthood – into our homes and the workplace. But unfortunately, in real life, there is no "happily ever after" when this plot plays out in our organizations. The conflict triangle I'm going to discuss results in low productivity, employee turnover, and lack of trust. But, if we can each take part in rewriting the story in our workplace, we will learn to see conflict differently and find constructive ways to approach it.
So, what is the conflict triangle?
Most children's stories consist of three main types of characters: the victim (a "damsel in distress" or an innocent child), the villain (a witch, giant or dragon), and the hero (the white knight or prince). Now think about these three character archetypes. In conflict, we tend to place ourselves and others into one of these three categories. Most often, we see ourselves as the victim who is being mistreated and is entirely innocent or powerless. At times we jump into the role of the hero and take up our "sword" and fight to right the wrong and seek justice. And occasionally we play the part of the villain, venting our anger or frustration and stoking fear or intimidation in others to get what we want. These three characters are the essence of the conflict triangle, and it's toxic in the workplace.
When people have a negative perception of conflict – which is healthy and necessary – it's because of this harmful dynamic. To break this triangle requires a different view of conflict and those with whom we have conflict. It requires moving away from the dramatic plot that entertained us as children toward resolution.
So let's analyze these roles and discuss how to start rewriting the story of conflict in our organization.
Because conflict involves an attack or threat to us or our needs or opinions, we feel victimized. With the victim role comes a belief in our innocence as well as a feeling of powerlessness. Victims often disengage in the workplace. They're usually the ones frequently expressing frustration or complaining, and the target is another person or group (i.e., management).
A hero may emerge to resolve the victim's problem. The hero's goal is to protect, defend, or even the score against the wrong that is taking place. The hero "slays the dragon." The hero appears noble, but when you realize the dragon is another person or group within the organization, you see the darker side of the hero. The hero's aggressive behavior and self-righteousness are hurtful; however, in the context of the conflict triangle, he or she feels justified. And, others may condone or applaud the attack of a hero because in their mind, the villain "had it coming."
Villains manipulate, control, or deprive the victim for their own ends. This role represents what Star Wars calls the "dark side" of the Force (sorry, last Star Wars reference). The villain attacks and takes what they want without concern for the impact on others. These tactics are used to control; when we experience someone controlling us, we quickly cast them as the villain in our conflict story. The villain's behavior is similar to that of the hero, distinguished only by how we judge them.
These roles only widen the gap and thicken the walls between colleagues. They establish others as untrustworthy and perpetuates negativity. At the heart of the conflict triangle is a win-lose approach to conflict. We must wholeheartedly dismiss this zero-sum game in organizations if we want them to function productively.
Writing a New Story
How do we escape the toxic conflict triangle? We can shift our perspective to seek resolution instead of victory. We can explore possibilities that allow all sides to get their needs met.
The Victim: From powerlessness to assertion
The victim must begin by taking responsibility for their feelings and reactions in conflict. We do not have to deny or devalue our feelings or needs but can accept them as our own. After all, whose problem is it if you go home frustrated with your boss at the end of a workday? Who "owns" the problem?
The victim must take responsibility for communication approaches. Consider the difference between the statements "You never make time for my issues at meetings" (victim) and "I'm concerned that we didn't discuss the budget during the meeting" (constructive). The first statement is loaded with judgment, casts the other person as the villain, and blames them for how we feel. The latter shares information, takes responsibility for feelings, and begins to identify the problem to be discussed and resolved.
Similarly, we can ask directly for what we need instead of quietly complaining to others about our plight; this is uncomfortable yet empowering. It's uncomfortable because we can no longer blame others and refuse to change. It's empowering because we become active participants in shaping our workplace for the better.
The Hero: From "good guy" to problem-solver
The hero's self-righteous mindset condones attacks on the villain as justice. Attack is met with counterattack; the conflict persists and usually escalates. When the need to be right fuels our ego, we become attached to a specific outcome. At this point, the conflict often becomes a power struggle.
The hero can address and resolve conflict much more effectively if he or she lets go of the need to be "right" and instead focuses on problem-solving. This opens up possibilities one might otherwise ignore.
This in no way means we should give in or avoid an issue to keep the peace. As I noted, conflict is necessary, and we need to exhibit a hero's courage at crucial times. But one can stand up for themselves, and others, in a way that doesn't knock another person down. It merely means shifting our judgment to curiosity and our self-righteousness to openness.
The Villain: From controlling to collaborator
There is a fine line between the roles of hero and villain, and their areas of toxicity are very similar. The villain needs to surrender the need for control and make room for fresh and creative possibilities to resolve conflicts and even redefine relationships. Threatening, interrupting, and intimidating may get the villain what they want temporarily. Still, it perpetuates the attack-defend cycle of the conflict triangle.
From Adversaries to Partners
So, where do we go from here? Slowly we should see our culture shift from the toxic conflict triangle to a circle of resolution. Our colleagues – even those with drastically different behaviors and opinions – are partners, not adversaries. So, we must acknowledge and relinquish our role in the conflict triangle to move forward toward productive solutions.
Conflict is a powerful force. The problem is that it has typically taken on a destructive nature. In our Everything DiSC® Productive Conflict program, we explore how the power of conflict can lead to high performance. We address this common paradox by empowering your organization to harness the power of conflict. To learn how today's struggle can turn into tomorrow's strength, visit www.coxswainadvisors.com/disc or register for our upcoming webinar "Leverage the Power of Conflict In Your Organization". Webinar attendees will receive a free productive conflict assessment and profile ($150 value).
May the Force be with you. :)
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