HBR Guide to Dealing with Conflict
By Amy Gallo
Review by Robert Morris
Most of the volumes in the “HBR Guide to...” and “HBR 10 Must Reads” series consist of about ten separate HBR articles. This volume is an exception. Amy Gallo and 37 “guest experts” she cites explain how to prevent disagreements from becoming nasty arguments at work and elsewhere. In the Preface, Harvard Business School professor Anita Hill suggests that “conflict at work is going to happen, no matter what you do [or don’t do]. And it should. It can be good for you, your team, and your organization. But how you deal with it can make the difference between a negative interaction and a productive one...Without ‘creative abrasion ‘ you won’t have a robust marketplace of ideas. The most effective people are those who can disagree constructively, not destructively, and keep difficult conversations substantive, not personal.”
How to cope with conflict at work and elsewhere? Here are some of Gallo's practical suggestions:
“First, you need to know the various sources of conflict…There are four main types: relationship (a personal disagreement), task (disagreement over what the goal is), process (disagreement over the means or process of achieving the goal), and status (disagreement over your standing in the group).”
“The second piece of information is to understand your options.” In general, there are four from which to choose when confronting the conflict: do nothing (more common than you may think), address the conflict indirectly, address the conflict directly (the focus of this book), and finally, your last resort, is to exit the relationship.
“The third and final aspect to having a more productive conflict is to know what people’s natural tendencies are when it comes to conflict.” Avoiders tend to shy away or even hide from disagreements; Seekers are more eager to engage in conflict when it arises (or even find ways to create it).
Gallo thoroughly explains how to make these assessments in the first three chapters.
Also of special interest to me is the material that focuses on passive aggression. How to cope with it at work and elsewhere?
“It is not uncommon for colleagues to make a passive-aggressive remark once in a while over a particularly sensitive issue or when they’re not sure how to directly address an issue. But persistent passive-aggressive behavior that manifests itself in a variety of situations is a different ball game. These individuals can be self-centered at best and narcissistic at worst, says Annie McKee. ’These are people who will do almost anything to get what they need including lie.’ But it may nit be all her fault, either. In many organizations, direct, overt disagreement is now allowed, so ’some people have been trained to be passive-aggressive by their cultures,’ she explains.
“Passive-aggressive people are not necessarily more engaged in conflict than most, but they’re doing it in a way that’s tough to deal with. It’s not as clean as the indirect approach described in chapter 2, ‘Your Options for Handling Conflict,’ because they are not being honest about their intentions. ‘Fighting with these people is like shadowboxing,’ says McKee. It’s best to do nothing and work around them or to distance yourself (exit), if possible.” Gallo then offers additional suggestions about other especially difficult conflicts (Pages 127-130).
These are her concluding thoughts:
“Knowing how to manage conflict at work won’t make it go away, but it will make dealing with any disagreements easier and less stressful. Whether you’re experiencing with your direct report or your boss — or someone outside your business — you now have the tools to assess the situation and choose an approach that works for you. As these scenarios [in the final chapter] show, directly addressing the conflict is just one alternative. You also need to know when to walk away or get out of the relationship altogether. But if you choose to sit down with your counterpart, you’re now better equipped to prepare for and engage in a difficult conversation, manage your and your counterpart’s emotions, and develop a resolution together.”
I presume to add another point: only in the healthiest relationships and, indeed, only in the healthiest organizations, are principled dissent and constructive disagreement (creative abrasion) most likely to thrive.
Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of Robert Morris. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.