We are a nation divided, and not just by politics. When run-of-the-mill conflict has us viewing our opposition as the enemy, the business consequences can be dire. Linda Henman offers a way forward.
During the Vietnam War, Americans experienced polarization that we had not felt since the Civil War. In 70s, 80s and 90s, we experienced relative unity. Now, however, the nation seems to become more polarized by the day — and not just when discussing politics, a topic that frequently causes conflict.
In homes and businesses, too many people have concluded that anyone who disagrees with them is an enemy. I find that those who are most tolerant of those who don’t look like them are the most intolerant of those who don’t think like them. These people express disdain for narrow-mindedness while exhibiting it themselves. In addition to dividing families and friends, this intolerance has led to tangible negative business outcomes. The constant competition and conflict have led to a loss of both learning and cohesion. Those who insist on listening only to ideas that reflect their own shelter themselves from knowledge that would give them more power, not less.
In 1961, Muzafer and Carolyn Wood Sherif developed what they called “realistic conflict theory,” which they explained as “inner group conflict, negative prejudices and stereotypes as a result of actual competition between groups for desired resources.” They based their theory on their 1954 “robbers cave experiment.” Critics found the theory flawed because the researchers used children in the experiment, so intolerance about methodology led to rejection of the lessons. The story drips with irony.
In the 1954 experiment, the researchers invited 22 white, 5th-grade, 11-year-old boys with above average intelligence to a special remote summer camp in Oklahoma: Robbers Cave State Park. In what many now consider a classic study in social psychology, the Sherifs divided the boys into two arbitrary groups and had the groups compete for limited resources (prizes) that only one group could ultimately claim.
Not surprisingly, they found that intergroup hostility, prejudice and discrimination arise as a result of conflicting goals and competition over limited resources. In society and business, we see these surface when groups or individuals compete for a real or perceived scarcity of resources such as money, political power or social status. Feelings of resentment arise when only one group wins and the other loses.
When I work with clients to help them resolve conflict, I encourage them to start by identifying a common goal. Then, I ask them to ask themselves the following:
- How productive is your present on-the-job relationship?
- What would it be like if it were ideal?
- What have you done that may have negatively affected the current situation?
- What has the other person done that has affected it?
- What major obstacles stand in the way of making this relationship ideal?
- What can be done to eliminate these barriers?
- What other factors or people inhibit the relationship being ideal?
- What benefits would accrue if the relationship were improved?
- What adverse consequences might ensue if the relationship is not improved?
- What can be done to improve the relationship so that the benefits are realized and the adverse consequences averted?
I find that if people commit to resolving differences, most can be resolved. We’ve all heard about win/win solutions for so long that we can lose sight of the power of this approach. However, even when the deepest divisions exist, we can turn adversaries into allies by finding common ground and common goals. There is almost always something that can unite us, even if it isn’t obvious at first.