Conflict is behind every dysfunction in our teams, organizations, and other human systems. Conflict that is openly hostile or a passive aggressive power struggle. Conflict over some difference.
We turn differences into dysfunctional conflict whenever being right, or rather not being wrong, is important to us. We do this automatically around issues having to do with our sense of identity or self-esteem.
For example, if being a good leader is an important part of how you define yourself, a comment suggesting that you might be less than a good leader is likely to trigger a conflict. A conflict in which you are likely to vehemently assert how and why you are a good leader.
Such differences raise the question of who is right and who is wrong? Who’s going to win and who’s going to lose? Who is “in” and who is “out.”
It’s a game we play more often than we want to admit. Think of the times it was important for you to prove you were right and the other person wrong. That the argument may damage an important relationship is likely to not come to mind.
We play the win/lose game seriously. Our sense of identity, of who we are, is at stake. When playing win/lose, avoiding the repugnant idea of being a loser is often more important than being a winner.
Power struggles, turf battles, empire building, back-stabbing, ego trips, personality conflicts, finger-pointing, and blaming are examples of the many ways we go about trying to prove that we are not losers. A waste of a great deal of personal and organizational energy.
These win/lose conflicts are rooted in a finite perspective of power where one side of seemingly opposable distinctions must be win, be correct and the other side lose and be wrong.
Our socializations have pre-settled many opposable distinctions for us. We tacitly know that first wins over second, top wins over bottom, more over less, and fast over slow with no referent needed.
We are trying to undo the damage of some of these socialized distinctions. For several decades, we’re trying to change the notions fo white wins/black loses and male wins/female loses.
Unfortunately, a change that does not include shifting away from the finite, win/lose perspective would simply result in a different group being oppressor and a different group being oppressed.
What’s the path forward here? First, we must notice how pervasive is our penchant for finite, win/lose power dynamics. I’ve worked with several leaders who claim they do not play win/lose. I ask if they really have never had aggravated arguments with a follower or colleague, not to mention their kids or significant other? If you’re human, of course, you have.
Once past any denial of playing win/lose, we are on the path toward limiting the waste of such conflicts. The next step is to notice the internal tension that automatically comes with challenges to our identity or self-esteem. Only then can we consciously and intentionally choose whether to continue down the path of hostility or choose a different response.
A different choice is the infinite perspective of power. In this perspective, differences that initially appear as challenges to our sense of identity or self-esteem are instead used to trigger our curiosity.
Curiosity allows us to get at the fundamental value of differences: they are the only source of learning that exists. Can you think of anything that you’ve learned that wasn’t something different from what you already knew?
Below are a couple of columns contrasting the finite to the infinite perspective of power.
Important! Win/lose always becomes lose/lose whenever one’s sense of self-esteem or identity is all that is at stake and actual physical survival is not!
In contrast, the infinite perspective values differences. They are not threatening. They are our only source of learning. Differences stimulate curiosity, creativity, and synergy.
In summary, leaders the recognize and understanding these power dynamics can shift them from finite to infinite when needed. Those that do will experience levels of productivity and staff engagement that win-lose conflict destroys.
Taking in hand our sense of identity and self-esteem is a never-ending task. It calls of being both patient with ourselves and persistent. It takes commitment and courage to swim against the current of our socialized, automatic reactions. But then that is what effective leaders do.
Michael F. Broom, Ph.D., CEO, Center for Human Systems
Michael Broom is an organization psychologist of 45 years of experience with all kinds of people and organizations. He is the author of The Infinite Organization, and Power, The Infinite Game. Formerly of Johns Hopkins University, he is a Lifetime Achievement Award honoree of the OD Network.