You know the types. There’s the office yeller, intimidating others with vitriolic rant. There’s the passive-aggressive underminer, nodding assent but then dragging her feet. There’s the colleague who gets angry over a perceived slight, but then quickly shifts tone. Conflict in the workplace is pervasive and unavoidable. And it isn’t always a bad thing. Healthy debate can be good for your corporate culture. It ensures that diverse perspectives are considered or lights the fire a team needs to move from a stalemate to a creative solution. But when they turn ugly, conflicts can damage your culture—straining relationships and putting teams at risk.
Academic research has long focused on understanding conflict in hopes of enabling faster resolution—or better yet, avoiding conflict in the first place. It’s been a recurring theme for Kristin J. Behfar, an associate professor of business administration at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business . Her most recent study, conducted with colleagues at several leading business schools, turns the traditional thinking about conflict on its head. Typically, substance—what we are fighting about—is thought to be the best predictor of a conflict’s outcome. But Behfar and her coauthors argue that we’re approaching it from the wrong angle. It’s how we fight, she explains in this excerpt from an interview with strategy+business, that determines what happens next. If your company is undertaking a culture change initiative, her findings are all the more important. When tensions are high, Behfar’s best practices for how to argue can be an essential tool for employees and managers alike.
S+B: When observing conflicts, what are you looking for? How do you measure expression?
BEHFAR: My colleagues and I developed a framework based on the idea that you can measure how people express conflict using two dimensions: their “directness” and their “oppositional intensity.” The first describes how directly, using words and body language, someone communicates information to the other party. A direct expression is literal and explicit. An indirect expression often involves a third party, like the proverbial game of telephone or office gossip, or occurs when a problem is hinted at but left to the listener to figure out.
To understand the other dimension, consider the difference between a trench and a foxhole. In a high-intensity scenario, the person has really dug in—he’s going to defend his trench or die trying. In a low-intensity situation, the person can still see the enemy’s position from his foxhole, and can adjust his position according to what the enemy does. At work, it’s more like the difference between an argument and a debate. In the former, which has high intensity, people cling fiercely to their positions. In the latter, someone is thinking about the other person’s point of view and incorporating it into her response. There’s still a line drawn in the sand, but it shifts with every exchange. Intensity can also be a matter of how subversive your intentions are. High intensity involves taking something from someone or intentionally blocking their interests. Low intensity is more about protecting one’s own interests.
S+B: So, if you can determine how direct and intense people are, you can predict how the conflict will play out?
BEHFAR: Yes, when you cross the two dimensions, you get telling patterns, or spirals. We believe our categorizations of conflict expression apply across cultures. People everywhere use degrees of directness and intensity to communicate opposition. But for this study, we focused on U.S. organizations. This enabled us to assume that people had the same blueprint for how they perceive conflict expression. Even though many workplaces are multicultural, people working in the U.S. become familiar with its behavioral norms.
In conflicts where both directness and intensity are high, people might be shouting, storming out of the room, or rolling their eyes. People tend to react with anger and frustration. Little problem solving happens, because both parties pay more attention to defending their own arguments than they do to understanding the other person’s point of view.
When conflicts are expressed with low directness and high intensity, they typically involve dismissive or passive-aggressive behavior. For example, actions such as teasing, backstabbing, or mobilizing a coalition send a message that there is a problem—the existence of a threat is clear—but the receiver has to figure out why the person is doing those things. Although there is no overt hostility or open fighting, people tend to respond by feeling anxiety and contempt, even humiliation or anger. These conflicts also tend to escalate, because people are focused on interpreting actions or protecting their interests rather than problem solving.
Also common are conflicts with low directness and low intensity, in which people avoid saying what they really mean and withhold critical information—often motivated by self-preservation. Here we often see less overtly threatening, more passive-aggressive behavior. For example, someone purposely misses a deadline because he doesn’t want a proposal to go through, and sends excuses to his colleagues. This leaves it up to others to consider whether his error was intentional. People often feel hurt or irritated, even guilty or confused, because they’re not really sure what the problem is, and whether they caused it. Escalation here might be less obvious than with the previous combinations, but the uncertainty involved typically results in negative outcomes.
When directness is high and intensity is low, people are not entrenched, and they’re not being subversive. But they are communicating unambiguously what they mean to the other party. The emotions associated with this type of conflict expression tend to be mixed. Someone might think, I’m frustrated that this person is opposing me, but I’m also excited because I see a potential for learning something. Because people typically respond calmly and rationally, this scenario is the most likely of the four to lead to resolution.
S+B: What role do cultural differences play?
BEHFAR: Our framework outlines how to categorize expressions. But culture is an important context for predicting how those expressions will be interpreted. It would be incorrect to conclude based on our work that direct expression is always better—that everywhere in the world unambiguous words and action are the best way to get the other party to understand your position. This is true in the U.S., where people appreciate directness, and where most people are left confused and frustrated by indirect confrontation. But in some cultures, for example, in Japan, people frown on direct confrontation and perceive it as unnecessary or uncouth—perhaps even insulting. And research has demonstrated that for those culturally conditioned to pick up on indirect communication, no meaning is lost in conflicts with low directness.
I said earlier that people respond to threats in predictable ways. But we all interpret the degree of a threat differently, depending on our expectations. And these expectations aren’t just based on culture. Other factors, such as gender and race—also influence perception. For example, women are more likely than men to become infuriated when confronted with the same type of conflict expression repeatedly, with no progress made toward a resolution. We are hoping to expand our study to see how these differences affect outcomes.
In your professional work, how do you “argue”? Are you aware of the impact you have on others? Does your workplace culture allow for healthy debate or is conflict avoided altogether? I would enjoy hearing your thoughts on this topic so please share your experience and comments on social media.
This article has been adapted with permission from strategy+business. To learn more, check out the full article, “Kristin Behfar on How We Fight at Work, and Why It Matters.”