The 4 Causes of Conflict and How to Handle Each

Conflict is a fact of life. Like the old saying goes, “If two people agree on everything, one of them is unnecessary.” Which suggests that the lack conflict is not only rare, but unhealthy.

We’ve all read well-documented stories of nurses avoiding conflict with surgeons while the wrong body part is amputated. Or engineers avoiding conflict with contractors about design flaws while bridges collapse and rockets blow up.

The important thing about conflict is not avoiding it but understanding it, identifying the cause and taking the right actions to resolve it. Here’s my approach.

Why Does Conflict Occur?

Conflict occurs when two or more people–or two or more groups of people–disagree about objectives and options. In others words, they disagree about what they want to do (objectives), how they want to do it (options), or both. When there’s disagreement about both objectives and options, I’ve found the mountain is usually too steep to climb. This is what I refer to as true conflict. You may want to attempt resolution, but it’s often best to walk away early, agreeing to disagree.

Most conflict, though, falls in a category I refer to as false conflict. False conflict exists when people agree on objectives but disagree on options. The conflict is false, in my opinion, because the most important part of the disagreement is already settled: the parties share common ground around a common cause. When this occurs, for the sake of the ultimate destination, get over your petty differences and compromise on the path to get there. With apologies to cat owners everywhere, there’s truly more than one way to skin ’em.

Then there’s false resolution. False resolution occurs when we agree on options but not on objectives. The classic example of this is a liberal politician and a conservative politician working together to get a pet project approved. Each are doing it for vastly different reasons, and the partnership usually unravels.

If you have agreement with someone in your business about options and not objectives; accept it for what it is, and what it is not. And understand that, unless agreement on underlying objectives is reached, your resolution is merely temporary. An ancient Old Testament writer once asked, “Can two walk together unless they are agreed?” The answer, or course, is no. Ultimately they will part company.

Achieving True Resolution

True resolution is achieved when all parties have reached agreement on both what they want to do and how they want to do it, objectives and options, in that order. This requires collaboration, which, at its root, refers to co-laboring with others. We co-labor with others to uncover hidden assumptions and expose preconceived notions. We co-labor with others to find the best possible solutions and the best possible alternatives to implement those solutions. We co-labor with others in dialogue, discussion, and, yes, even debate in the service of shared objectives and sound options.

And the labor is worth it. The brilliant Patrick Lencioni writes in The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, “Not finance. Not strategy. Not technology. It is teamwork that remains the ultimate competitive advantage, both because it is so powerful and so rare. A friend of mine, the founder of a company that grew to a billion dollars in annual revenue, best expressed the power of teamwork when he once told me, ‘If you could get all the people in an organization rowing in the same direction, you could dominate any industry, in any market, against any competition, any time.'”