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Conflict in the Workplace? Tips from Amy Gallo

Yesterday, Amy Gallo’s excellent new book, Guide to Dealing with Conflict, was released, so it seems a good time to revisit an earlier Great Work Podcast. I had the pleasure of speaking to Amy about a year ago, and in that conversation we dug into how to reframe conflict so that it is easier to manage. As well, she presented a powerful four-step process to help you deal with conflict in a way that is both productive and professional.

We also explore the role that culture plays, and the importance of moving on from the fight. I urge you to check out Amy’s work at AmyEGallo.com and to follow her on Twitter @AmyEGallo.

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Full Transcript

Michael: Think about conflict for a moment. Now when you think about conflict, one you’ve just had recently, one that’s on the horizon you can feel coming up, does your heart sink a little bit or does it kind of get a little excited? I know for me, for sure, I am a conflict-avoider rather than a conflict-seeker. If I can skip it, if I can avoid it, if I can go weirdly passive-aggressive, that’s probably the route I’ll take. But whether you are a seeker of conflict or an avoider of conflict, you are definitely going to enjoy this next conversation. I’ve managed to find time to talk to Amy Gallo.

Now, Amy is the author of the HBR Guide to Managing Conflict at Work, a really practical, useful book that I’ve read, and she’s also a contributing editor at Harvard Business Review. You can find her stuff at hbr.org, and also she runs workshops on conflict and managing conflict more successfully, so this is a woman who knows what she’s talking about.

And when we get into this conversation, what I love about it is just how practical it is. You know, right from the very opening insight about there’s actually four different types of conflict, and one of the key mistakes we make time and time again is to default to one type of conflict, often the most damaging type of conflict, when in fact it’s often more commonly different types of conflict; to the different styles of managing conflict, avoiding or seeking it; to getting into the practicalities about once you’re there, how do you now manage conflict so that you end up less bruised, the person you’re talking to ends up a little less bruised, and you actually make great progress on the topic at hand. So please enjoy this, my conversation with Amy Gallo, author of the HBR Guide to Managing Conflict at Work.

Okay, Amy, so here we are. We’re talking about what’s the smart way to manage conflict at work. And honestly, I have to ask you this: are we not just putting lipstick on a pig? I mean, can you actually manage conflict in a smart way or is it always inherently this awkward, slightly destructive process?

Amy: Well, that’s a great question because a lot of people feel exactly as you just said, that how could conflict ever possibly feel good? How could it ever feel normal when people are fighting at work, when you’re having turf wars? It just feels bad. And I’m not here to tell you that conflict is going to stop feeling bad but …

Michael: Well, forget it! That was the whole point of this interview, right? But okay, alright, carry on. Carry on.

Amy: But it can feel manageable. How about that?

Michael: Yeah, that’s good. I’ll take that.

Amy:  Is that lipstick? I don’t know. It can feel manageable and it can feel less intimidating, which I think is what really my goal was in writing this book. I have a husband who’s very conflict-averse and I see, you know, the blood drain from his face. I see his heart start racing when any conflict comes up, and I know that lots of my colleagues feel that same way. And I thought, “You know, it doesn’t have to be that way.” We don’t have to have the fear driven into us every time we disagree or we start not to see eye to eye on something. Or even if just someone starts yelling at us, it doesn’t need to be that bad. So my goal with this book was to give people really practical tools they could use to get the benefits out of conflict without as much of the down-sides.

Michael: That and being a marital aid in terms of helping you and your husband deal with the conflict knowing he’s so conflict-averse as well, so you say.

Amy: Yeah, though I’m not sure how much that’s helps, but …

Michael: It’s like two for the price of one, that’s great.

Amy: Right, right, marital accord and a helpful book out in the world. Yes, both are good.

Michael: So one of the things I really liked is that at the start of the book, you actually say, “Look, there’s not just a single type of conflict. There are actually four different types of conflict.” So do you want to just lay out what those four different types of conflict are?

Amy: Yeah, and I think I’m glad that you keyed in on that because that is an important, one of the more important frameworks in the book for making conflict more manageable, because what happens when you get into a conflict, you immediately assume, most of us, that it’s a relationship conflict. It’s a personal disagreement. You know, you feel disrespected or hurt or you think your relationship is at risk. And most conflicts don’t actually start there, or I should say most conflicts at work don’t actually start there. There’s usually something else going on, and they start as one of the other three.

So the first of the other three is task, and that’s a disagreement over a goal or what you’re trying to achieve. So you and I work on a project; I think the goal is to increase revenue, you think the goal is to improve our customer service ratings. You know, we just don’t agree on what we’re actually doing.

Now, the second is process, and that’s where we don’t see eye to eye on how the work gets done. So let’s say you and I are in a meeting. I might think, “Oh, we’re all going to agree. We’re going to come to a consensus and then we’ll move on with the project.” And you might think, “No, no, we’re all going to give our input and let the senior leader decide.” So we disagree over how we’re actually going to get the work done.

Michael: And Amy, if I can just jump in here, you know, I know with working with our small team here, recognizing that actually most of the conflict we had was actually not relationship-based but process-based because of just different working styles. And this references the work of another guy we’ve interviewed here, a guy called Les McKeown who says, “Look, there are three different roles that play out in organizational life.” I play the V role, the visionary role, which is the, “Move fast, start stuff, don’t necessarily finish stuff, get seduced by the bright, shiny objects, and you know, kind of be very future-focused.” My number two here plays the operator role, which is all about, “Just get stuff done, but would you mind not going off on a new, ludicrous journey before we’ve finished all the other stuff?”

And then the process person is, you know, she’s really very much about, “Alright, can we put this in the Wiki? Can we record the process? Can we dot the ‘i’s? Can we cross the ‘t’s?” And knowing that often the conflict we had was between these different roles that we’re playing out and the process associated with how we work rather than it’s Michael versus whoever was really a liberating experience for us.

Amy: Right. Yeah, and I can imagine. I mean, the other, when sometimes you don’t understand that it’s a process or a task conflict, you start making assumptions like, “He doesn’t think I’m good at my job.”

Or you think, “I don’t think he’s good at his job,” right? So you actually get into this real personal stuff that has nothing to do with what’s actually going on. And so, it’s really helpful. I mean, I think most conflicts start as either a task or a process conflict, and if you can identify that sometimes the conflict just goes away.

Michael: Yeah, that’s right. So you’ve named three of the conflicts: relationship, task, and process. There’s one more. What’s that?

Amy: That’s status, and that is sort of a new one in the academic literature, but it makes a lot of sense in the practical world, and that’s a disagreement about who’s in charge. So I’m leading the cross-functional initiative and my co-worker actually thinks he’s leading it. So it’s where the turf wars come in, and you know, as it says, it’s just who actually has the higher status in the group?

Michael: So that’s a really useful framework to begin the conversation. But one of the things that really caught my eye when I read the book also was actually saying that there are people who have a natural tendency towards or away from conflict. There are some people who avoid it. I’ll stick up my hand here.

But there are other people who seek it. And you know, as an avoider, I’m like, “Really? There are people who actually seek conflict?” Can you speak a little bit more to who these weird people are?

Amy: Well, I’m one of them, and I married an avoider, so this is a little bit of an oversimplification. There’s a lot of frameworks that get into sort of more nuanced categories of people. But for the basics, you know, like you said, there are avoiders and seekers, and seekers like myself are people who get, I wouldn’t say a thrill, but they’re interested in conflict, or when conflict happens they’re interested in escalating it. They’re people who have probably been rewarded for being in conflicts or fighting in the past or just enjoy a lively debate. You know, they value truth and directness. Like, think about someone who grew up in a big family and who sat around a dinner table growing up where it was, you know, people yelled and said things to each other that in another family might feel, you know, uncomfortable or like conflict. But for them, that feels like a comforting thing.

And for me, when a conflict happens, I jump right in and I do tend to escalate it because I think I truthfully find it a little fun. But the seekers need to be very careful of the avoiders because if you and I got in a conflict, and I’m sort of trying to escalate it and you’re trying to avoid it, we can get into a really difficult situation where I’m either bullying you, hurting you, you’re not getting your point across or getting your opinion heard, and we’re just not going to get the work done. So knowing what category you’re in and then knowing what your counterpart, the person you’re having the conflict with, knowing whether they’re a seeker or avoider can be really helpful to figure out how to actually solve the problem you’re having.

Michael: You know, you’re giving me flashbacks to my first girlfriend who was the daughter of Irish and Italian parents. And the first time I went over to their house for a meal, I mean, I cowered in a corner because it was crazy. You know, I’m the son of much calmer, English, Anglo parents, and it was I’m seeing immediately that distinction, so that’s great.

Amy: Yeah, and I think that taking the—again, trying to sort of take the personal out of it, right? We all are just a product of our different experiences at home, at work, so being a conflict-avoider and being a conflict-seeker, neither are better. It’s just who you are and it’s just a matter of understanding our preferences so that we can better work together.

Michael: So now we’ve got this kind of two frameworks laid out, which I think are very handy. You lay out a four-part process as an overview for managing conflict, and the first part is kind of accessing the other person’s point of view, which is always really powerful. Secondly, analyzing the type of conflict, and we’ve already kind of seen the value of potentially doing that. Step three, determine the goal, and then step four is picking an option. Now I want to come back to the options in just a minute.

But can you speak to the value and the power of why you’d want to determine the goal? And when you say that, what do you even mean?

Amy: So what I mean is what do you want when this conflict is over, right? So once you can actually get through, because a conflict, usually it’s over something but it’s a process you need to get through to get somewhere. And unfortunately, I think what most people do is their goal is, “I want to win,” or, “I want to be heard.” And if your goal is to stick it to the other person, pick another goal because that is not going to get you anywhere.

So what you want to think about is, “What is it I actually care about here? Is it that I want to complete the project quickly? Is it that I want the best quality I can get? Does my relationship matter most with this person, so I actually don’t care about the outcome of the work; I just care that our relationship stays intact?” And I think, you know, you said the first part is to understand your counterpart, and I think you need to do some thinking about, “What’s my counterpart’s goal here and do we have something in common? Do we have a shared goal?” Because that’s going to be so helpful if you decide to actually address the conflict directly in order to get to a resolution.

Michael: You know, and I think there you’re drawing on just some great negotiation foundations there around, you know, get clear on what you want, take your best guess at what the other party wants, and that just puts you in a much stronger position to then manage that conflict. And I just want to pick up one thing you said. You know, it’s like if your goal is to stick it to the other person, pick another goal.

The only variation that I would guess is that if it’s a status type of conflict, then it might actually be a legitimate goal to try and eliminate or remove the other person in some way.

Amy:  Yeah. I mean, I think ideally that you would want to do that in the service of something, right? So maybe you have more experience to lead the project well, and so you’re actually—your goal is to make the project successful. So even if it is to eliminate or to put that person in their place or to get them to stop disrupting your meetings, hopefully it’s in the service of something larger and something you both can care about. Because again, you’re trying to get—it takes two to tango, so to speak, and you need that other person to buy in as much as you. And if you can find something that they care about as much as you do and you can agree on that, you’re going to be in a much better position.

Michael:  So once you’ve determined your goal, what you want, and I think that’s just one of the most powerful questions you can ask yourself and ask others: “What do you want?” Because actually, so often people aren’t really that clear on that.

And once they become clear on that, it can actually create a shift in the conversation right away. But after you’ve done that, you then say, “Well, pick an option about how now to manage this conflict,” and you offer up four options. And interestingly, only one of them is about kind of coming at the conflict directly. You know, kind of a confrontation. So can you talk us through the four different options?

Amy: Sure. So the first one is to do nothing, and that’s something we do all day long. There’s conflicts brewing. You know, we disagree with people. We’re in meetings. You know, things get a little tense and then we just choose to do nothing. And often, when you go through the four steps we just outlined before, thinking about your goal, putting yourself in your counterpart’s shoes, understanding what type of conflict, sometimes you’re, like, “Oh, wait, it’s not worth it to do anything about this. I might as well just turn the other cheek, walk away. You know, just move on.”

Michael: Yeah, let the whole thing just diffuse naturally. Yeah.

Amy: Exactly, exactly. And it’s a perfectly good approach. It’s something that avoiders like yourself probably do more often than they should. So you do need to think about your tendency when you’re making this choice, but it’s a good option. It’s a really good option.

Michael: If you’ve actively chosen it rather than just defaulted to it because you’re wimping out.

Amy: Exactly. Perfect point, because you don’t want to—these should all be a conscious choice. You don’t want to just do what feels most comfortable, you want to do what you think is best for the situation.

Michael: Nice. Okay, so option one, do nothing, but not in a kind of passive-aggressive, “I’m too scared to manage this,” but actually saying to yourself, “The option that gives me the best outcome here is actually just to do nothing.”

Amy: Yeah, and I’m glad you brought up the passive-aggressive word because that is something to think about when you do nothing. Because when you choose to do nothing, as you said, consciously choose, you have to accept that you won’t stew about it. If you’re going to stew about it, go with one of the other options because …

Michael: So what are the other options then?

Amy: So the second is to address indirectly. Now here in the U.S., people often hear this and go, “What? Like, talk about passive-aggressive.” But this is a really viable option in many cultures, both national cultures—like East Asia, this is a very effective way to handle conflict—but also in office cultures in more direct national cultures as well. So, and this is where you would maybe involve your boss a third party or you would hint at the conflict without ever actually naming it.

One of the tactics here is to tell a story. So let’s say you and I are fighting about something and I would actually tell you a story about how another colleague and I once solved a similar conflict, but I wouldn’t be saying, “Hey, let’s hash this out,” but I might be using a metaphor or telling a story about how this could go. And in the right situation, the person hears that you don’t have to have the direct conflict and things move on; you’re able to solve it.

Michael: I lived and worked in England for a while and I would hazard a guess that indirect dealing with conflict is a standard British way of doing it. You know, you kind of do dry sarcasm in the hope that that diffuses the whole thing.

Amy: Right. Right, and did it work? Did you see?

Michael: You know, having worked in different cultures, there’s definitely a different approach. I know when some people from England come over to work for the States, the difference between I would say an American, direct approach to not just conflict but almost anything, it’s all a bit more blunt.

As opposed to, you know, the Brits who go, “Look, I’ve been ironic, I’ve been dryly sarcastic, I’ve used diffusing humour; surely you understand what’s in the subtext of all of this.” Certainly made for some cultural misunderstandings.

Amy: Yeah, and I think, I mean, with any of these, it can be difficult. I worked in Korea and I had—you know, there’s a very strong tendency toward indirect addressing of conflict and it was really hard for me because I kept thinking, “These people are dishonest. You know, they won’t address; they won’t talk about anything honestly and directly.”

But truthfully, I realized this is the way they handle it and it’s a very effective way. It’s not like they don’t get work done. It’s just the way they handle it, so I had to sort of learn to take the judgment out of it.

Michael: And I mean, if you don’t mind me just kind of going on a sidetrack, how did you do that? Because if you’re a person that is pro-conflict, if you like. That’s not the right way to frame it, but you know, comfortable with conflict.

And you’re in a culture which is very much about avoiding conflict, what were some of the tactics you used to manage your impatience or what I’m imagining was impatience?

Amy: Yeah. Well, first of all, I wish I had known. You know, everyone says this.

Michael: “Where was this book?”

Amy: Yeah, exactly. I wish I had known at the time. I mean, I even wish I had known what I knew at the end of the stint there, about how they handled conflict, and I could have learned that very quickly. I mean, there’s just so much information available about working in different cultures. I could have learned a lot before I went, and unfortunately I did not. So it took a lot—I mean, it was very stressful because I would sit in meetings and try to bring things up, and people would just either talk over me, flat out ignore me. It was incredibly frustrating.

But I think when someone—and this is a big issue for a lot of people who work in different cultures, is whose cultural approach do you use? So let’s say you and I are in a room and your normal approach is typically to address it indirectly and my approach is to address it directly. It’s, like, whose do we actually use?

And I think it works out in very different ways, but generally when I was in Korea, it was my role to adapt. That was on me, to learn how they deal with conflict and adapt. And I sort of did a lot of anthropology. You know, I observed a lot about how things went. I looked at who was most effective and saw how they handled disagreements. And then I just, in order to manage my frustration, truthfully I did a lot of mindfulness kind of stuff. Deep breathing in a meeting. You know, a lot of self-talk of, like, “This isn’t about me. This is how they handle things.” And you know, I also did try to do—when there were certain people there I had really trusting relationships with and I would say, “This is really hard for me.” And it helped to sort of put that out there because they would say, “Yeah.” They would do a lot of explaining and say, “Well, yeah, but this is how we handle things here.” And they’d give me advice: “If you really want to get people to pay attention to that, this is how you do it.”

Michael:  Amy, let me ask you because I think you brought up a really interesting point. I think, you know, if you’re now working in Korea, you I guess obviously would default to, “This is the cultural norm of how we deal with conflict here.” But do you have any suggestions if you’re working in a multinational company? You know, you’re in the States, your colleague is in, let’s say, Asia somewhere. So you know, you’re working virtually. Do you have any kind of guidance around managing conflict there where there’s less of an obvious, “Whose home turf are we on here?” when it’s more of a shared space?

Amy: I think that’s a very vexing problem for managers, especially as we become more global and there’s more sort of multicultural meetings or projects happening. And truthfully, I’ve asked a lot of cultural experts that question. Erin Meyer, and a few others, and he’s a great person who’s a great researcher who’s done tons of research about this. And I think there’s no clear answer. It really depends on the situation, but I think there’s some things you can do. You can observe. You can say, “Okay, this is my approach. This is their approach. Which would be more effective in this situation?”

I remember asking Erin actually once. I said, “Well, could you just talk about it directly and say, ‘Whose style are we going to approach?’” And she said, “That is so American.”

So I think it’s really a matter of sort of feeling the situation out, and whose culture is more dominant in that situation? Is there a home turf? Is there someone who’s more powerful? So if your senior leader is a Spaniard, you know, you might use a more direct approach. And just sort of figuring out, you know, whose approach is the more preferred one or the one that would be most effective in that situation. It’s a really hard thing to figure out.

Michael: Well, it’s just useful to hear that even with people who have a lot of experience here, that this is a tricky thing to figure out. It’s a useful insight. You know, there’s no obvious answer here. You need to navigate carefully. And I think one of the things I liked about your book is there’s a number of times where you say, “Get into the other person’s head. Get into their shoes as best you can to try and soften the edges of your awareness about how they might be thinking about dealing with addressing conflict.”

Amy: I think that if people take nothing away from this conversation other than that point, I will be happy because I think it’s so—I mean, we’re designed, right? Our brains are designed that when we get in a conflict, we focus on ourselves. You know, our heart rate goes up and we get into panic mode. You know, literally. And so …

Michael: Right, where it’s a neurological response, right? We’re in a fight or flight mode and that’s all about protecting yourself, so of course.

Amy: Exactly. And if you can break that just a little bit and try to think, “Well, what’s the other person going through? Why did she say that obnoxious thing? Why did he send that snarky email? Why is she giving me the evil eye from across the room?” Instead of thinking, “I feel horrible. This person is a jerk.” Like, just even taking their perspective for a few minutes helps so much because it gives you—and I don’t mean that in an altruistic way. You’re not being generous. It’s actually quite productive for you to do that. And it helps you, A, calm down and, B, get the information you need to solve the conflict.

Michael: Let’s come back to the options we have because I’m seeing our time ticking on. I want to make sure that we cover these off before we’re done. You’ve covered do nothing, you’ve covered addressing indirectly, but you’ve got two other options left. What are they?

Amy: So the third is to address directly and that is the preferred option in many Western cultures, U.S. in particular, where you sit down and actually hash it out. And that’s where you have to have the difficult conversation, but often it can be a productive discussion if you prepare for it and handle it appropriately. So, and that’s one, you know, oftentimes, like I said, if you do the pre-work of sort of analyzing the conflict, that often doesn’t become necessary. So it’s not the option you have to exercise all the time, but it is a very good option.

Michael: Okay, lovely. And what’s number four?

Amy: Number four is exit the relationship. Now, this sounds like the eject button and it is basically an eject button and it should be used in that same way, which is that this is not what you do when you first get in a conflict. Usually it’s something you do after you’ve tried one of the other three or tried all of the other three, and it’s not always possible to do, as you can imagine. If the conflict’s with your boss or a colleague or a team member, you know, you can’t necessarily quit, get that person off your team, get a new boss. But if the situation is untenable, and you know, one of the things about conflict is it does feel bad and if it’s going on for a long time over a long period of time and not getting better, this could be something you need to do.

Michael: Yeah, I love that you got that as an option. And you know, there are obvious versions of exit, but part of it is, you know, one of the things you can take from that also is how do you minimize the conflict knowing that it’s almost not manageable through the other three options? But one of the ways you can seek to just avoid it as much as possible, knowing that it’s probably not manageable, so just reducing the amount of it is a good strategy in itself, even if you can’t exit completely.

Amy: Yeah, and it’s a self-protective option, right? Because persistent conflict, unhealthy conflict, over a long period of time is really damaging and there’s no reason to subject yourself to that if you don’t have to.

Michael: Amy, there’s a bunch more in the book that I don’t think we’ve got time to get to unfortunately, and this is a good tease for people listening to go, “Look, if you want to actually get into now that you’ve figured out what type of conflict it is, now you’ve figured out what type of conflict person you are, an avoider or a seeker, now that you’ve kind of understood the situation and you’ve picked your approach, if you’re wanting to address it indirectly or directly, how do you manage this?” And Amy sets out a number of different steps around that, from framing it to setting ground rules to the power of labelling feelings, which is a really useful thing to have done. But, Amy, as a way of almost wrapping us up here, I’m going to ask you to talk about one of the final steps here, which is moving on from the fight. And can you just talk a little bit about the importance of that?

Amy: Yeah. I mean, I think, again, as we were talking about, conflict can be difficult and there’s a lot of stress and there’s a lot of potential to damage relationships. So it’s important, once you’ve actually had a resolution, to move on, and that means to move on both to execute whatever resolution or agreement you’ve agreed on but also to move past what’s happened. And you have to keep in mind, if the fight was protracted and intense, you’re going to likely need to do some repair of the relationship.

And there’s some advice in the book, a couple things. I won’t go into all of them, but one of the things I really like is a piece of advice that I think Bob Sutton at Stanford originally told me, which is that the best way to repair a relationship is to spend more time together. And that may be the last thing you want to do, especially if you’ve worked through a really tough disagreement. But you know, it actually really works. The more you work together, the more you spend time together, the more your relationship will get back on track, the more you’ll trust each other and, most likely, the more you’ll be willing and able to handle conflicts effectively in the future.

Michael: That’s very useful. And for the people listening in, Bob’s been a guest on this podcast before, so you can also check out the conversation with Bob, which we talked about, I think, around scalability because his most recent book was about how to scale excellence.

Amy: Yeah, he’s wonderful.

Michael: He is. He’s a genuinely lovely man, isn’t he?

Amy: Yes, very much.

Michael: Amy, this has been a great conversation. Really powerful. I’m going to guess that the group of us who self-identify as an avoider of conflict are possibly larger than the group who self-identify as seekers of conflict, so my guess is that you’re speaking to a lot of people who are going, “I don’t love this. But this is useful to understand how if I have to face conflict, if I think there is a smart way to manage conflict at work, how do I go about doing that?” So thank you for that.

Amy: You’re welcome. And I hope it’s helpful to lots people. It’s such a fun topic for me to talk about. I appreciate you asking me on the show.

Michael: Amy, for people who want to find out more about the book or about you, is there somewhere on the Web that they can find that out?

Amy: The best place is hbr.org, and you can search for the HBR Guide to Managing Conflict at Work, which is the book, or you can search for my name and you’ll see all of my writings there.

Michael: Amy, it’s been a real pleasure, so thank you.

Amy: Thank you, Michael.

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