I seldom pause a television show to rewind back to a line delivered by a character just so I can write it down; but tonight I did. The eldest daughter in Madame Secretary commented on a college protest about a mutual agreement between a mining company and the Peruvian government that seemed disproportionately angry. The line about the college-age protesters that got me to reach for the rewind button on the clicker was:
“They grew up thinking that all conflict is injustice. That’s what you get for giving everyone a trophy for showing up.”
I see many opportunities for teamwork, leadership, innovation, collaboration, healthy cultures, quality products, and sustained value to customers get derailed by the inability of employees and leaders to engage in healthy conflict. Ineffective conflict management is like a kink in a hose that stops or slows down the flow of water.
In many situations, conflict becomes its own character in our drama. It is separate from us, and this demon can only be dealt with in one of two ways: turn away and avoid it, or attack it with aggression. Take a look at your own situation. Have you noticed any of your colleagues avoiding conflict by pretending to be nice to your face but later gossiping behind your back? Or look at politics these days. It’s a place for temper tantrums – a cathartic expression of anger – not a forum to exchange and debate ideas. Like junk food, the hunger behind the conflict is never satisfied. As author Jacob Needleman says, we are a society starved for ideas. Conflict has become an injustice to avoid or destroy.
“That’s what you get for giving everyone a trophy for showing up.
When we blur the lines between winner and loser, when reality is not aligned with our desires, we remove the opportunity to manage the conflict we feel inside ourselves. When my kid gets a trophy for participating in soccer, the joys of winning or the pain of losing a game are overshadowed by entitlement. Achievement and its opposite, failure, are neither experienced nor valued. When conflict does show up at our front door, we’re so unfamiliar with how to greet it, we overreact with avoidance or aggression.
Conflict is good. It teaches us self-reliance, confidence, ingenuity, and self-respect. All battles are a battle with the self. When we learn how to face and overcome those internal conflicts, we see others with a new level of compassion and understanding. “I understand you because I have experienced my own conflict. I see myself in you.”