Conflict Management Summer Class

It was a summer Saturday at 8:00 a.m. and thirty-six MBA students reported to class for an accelerated two-weekend class on conflict management. For most students, the five class meetings would replace normal days off, meaning they would go nearly three weeks without a real break. “I heard she gives us a big group project to intentionally create conflict,” I overheard one student leak inside information to another. No way thirty something adult Master’s students would fall for such a ruse, I thought.

We all read Managing Differences by fellow University of Hartford alumni Daniel Dana before the first class; we all knew the tools for managing conflict. We all knew cardinal rules like avoiding fight (power plays) or flight (shutting down) reflexes. Even if disaster struck and we found ourselves immersed in conflict, we knew how techniques like a simple conciliatory gesture, an apology or display of empathy, can break the cycle of conflict. There was no way we could be tricked into conflict.

By the conclusion of the first six-hour role-play, the situation deteriorated and the mood was intense.  The pretend HR woman had to sit down with the pretend president and a pretend team leader who was really angry. People were shouting, shutting down, expressing frustration and complaining of physical ailments like headaches and nausea. We were duped.

Is conflict so unavoidable that even in a pretend world where trained intellects know it is coming they can’t get out-of-the-way? I kept thinking of that scene in Austin Powers where the guy gets run over by a steam roller moving at one mile per hour. If so, are we doomed to Dana’s escalating levels of conflict and endless retaliatory cycles?  In the course text, Dana describes similarities between human responses to conflict and the responses we see in dogs. Are we no more evolved than dogs acting out territorial aggression? Are we slaves to our evolutionary fight or flight instincts?

The first task for our group was to organize ourselves into a company that would produce written case studies for a client, played by the professor. We elected a president, Sam, whose background was in sales with future ambitions towards management. Poor fellow. Sam had a big nervous looking smile and he clapped his hands loudly when attempting to build enthusiasm. During his campaign speech he indicated that his strengths were problem solving and leadership. Those skills would soon be put to the test. I didn’t vote for him, but he won the group over and beat his competitors in a landslide. “I have one rule,” he said during his first presidential address, “don’t get frustrated.” Rules were made to be broken.

The five teams worked in three-hour production periods, with the entire company required to produce two conflict management case studies per period. At the end of the first period, the customer accepted neither of submitted papers. So, during the second period we had to revise the first two and create the two new cases for the second period. The teams who had to rewrite their first papers were frustrated by the lack of feedback from management. The other teams were frustrated that management did not choose their papers for submission. Managers began to push everyone to meet deadlines. Some participants began to ignore others, giving the silent treatment or putting their headphones in to listen to some music. The tense quiet on their side of the room made some managers afraid to approach. Others resorted to confrontation, raising their voices and saying things like, “You are not listening to me,” and, “The managers are not communicating with us or each other. Do they even know what we are supposed to do?” The loud rabble-rabble crowd noise kept managers away from these parts of the room. Soon, the managers were hiding in their self-described ivory tower (the president actually used these words) and the workers felt outraged.

At the end of the first day the group met for a debriefing discussion, which was the most interesting part of the entire exercise. I could not believe how the conflicts we had been trying to avoid played out right in front of me. One person would describe another’s personal deficits. The attacked person would then justify his or her behaviors as the best option given their situation. Nobody relinquished an entrenched position. The manager’s justifying statements sounded like excuses.

“The way you are paying us is unfair,” one worker exclaimed.

“I’d like to respond,” replied a manager. He had the sheepish look of someone about to make a mistake, like a guy at a restaurant about to burn his hand on a plate the waitress warned him about. “Let me explain why it was decided that this was the best pay plan,” he tried to justify.

Another manager said, “Let me explain it differently so you can understand.” I heard, “Let me dumb this down so your simple worker mind can understand the challenges of the great art of management.” We were fighting.

I also noticed how often the passive voice was used, I mean, how often the participants used the passive voice. Passive voice statements disguise or protect people from responsibility. As one manager cleverly said, “The decision was made to,” instead of saying, “I decided to,” or, “Sam decided to,” in the active voice. The decision was just magically made, by nobody, so you cannot blame anyone. This group discussion was more like a meltdown, if you ask me.

Strangely, the second day went much smoother. People who left shouting at each other the night before were working together in harmony. The raised voices, headphones, and frustrations from the day before were gone. Why? I didn’t figure it out until I reread Dana’s description of how conversations about conflict are cathartic. In other words, we don’t have to resolve all the issues during a fight. The discussion itself, even if it is heated, is a healthy release of healing emotions. I thought we were doomed by the end of our meltdown, but I was wrong. We were healed. Participants showed courtesy, they listened to each other and teams completed higher quality work faster. Day two was not perfect, there were occasional blips, but we hit our deadlines and made a lot of (fake) money. Productivity sky-rocketed.

Daniel Dana’s GSCS exercise is nothing short of brilliant. I love the behavioral laboratory learning model where students learn through experience. We were charged with forming an organization consisting of a president, executive team, middle managers, and five cross functional teams. I have heard this called a matrix organization structure with team members reporting to both operational managers called team leaders and functional managers. The company I work for changed to a similar structure earlier this year. We sometimes have issues like associates not knowing whom they report to and information getting bogged down in the management team. Many associates would tell you management has a communication problem. If you were going to pick an org structure that would create conflict, the matrix would be choice number one. In fact, I am unclear on the benefits or viability of such a structure.

Other smart aspects of the exercise showed the designer’s intention to create conflict. There was just enough money to go around and then give some, not all, of the people bonuses. There were five teams, but managers could chose only two case studies per period. There were short time constants, and a customer who rejected papers failing to meet quality standards for structure, content, and grammar. There were unexpected special projects presented by the board draining resources and creating more tension. All of this succeeded in shaking the group up right from the start.

I loved this exercise and I am only beginning to understand the lasting lessons. I do understand that conflict is absolutely inevitable. Further, based on my day two experience of renewed harmony, I believe conflict is actually healthy for the organization. I could identify at least a dozen real conflicts that happened in nine-hour existence of the GSCS Corporation. As time passed we started to use the tools we learned. As a result we learned to work together at a higher level and the organization benefited. I’m excited to learn more about conflict management, which is more than just some summer MBA elective – it’s at the core of our organizations.