Escalating the Conflict

By Thomas M. Shenk

When a conflict exists between two people or groups, the parties often feel helpless to correct the rift. Consider a vice president who thinks that he deserves a raise. He was promised one three months ago, but it never materialized – despite his reminders. He feels that he shouldn’t have to initiate the discussion again and again. The longer he stays on the subject, the less respect he feels his boss has for him and the more insecure he feels about his job. He begins to resent his boss and finds himself searching for reasons to dislike the man. This VP plays a critical role in the organization and is becoming increasingly distressed, which is affecting his performance and therefore the company’s performance. He doesn’t know what to do and feels powerless to rectify the situation.

By definition, “in conflict” is a feeling state in which one feels anxious, a combination of fear and anger. When the state lingers, the situation worsens and the cost to the company skyrockets. The increased stress, the lost productivity, the damage to others sucked into the conflict, the missed business opportunities, are all avoidable if the conflict should be escalated.

Escalating the conflict is a counter-intuitive principle. The natural response is to react with, “We don’t want more conflict, we want less, we want to minimize conflict.” Escalating the conflict means managing the chronic tension in yourself and in the relationship instead of ignoring or “living with it.” When there is chronic tension present in you, it strongly suggests there is an unresolved issue for you. We exist in this state due to a combination of many factors, of which fear of being rejected and or losing our job are not the least. When we confront tension, we start to correct the situation but to make it an individual imperative is unrealistic, given the hierarchical nature of most of our organizations.

Consequently, organizations must have a stated policy or system which allows chronic tension or lingering conflicts to be resolved. People must always have a way to go within the system. An organization must deploy a passive approach to unresolved tension an must visibly value a system to escalate the conflict.

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