Workplace Conflict

Patrick Lencioni contends in his The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business, that the interpersonal dynamics among employees of a company will more often predict success or failure of a company than will other factors.  We often assume that competition, or supply chain, or customer demand are the primary determinants of success.  Lencioni posits that organizational health is even more important.  

Who hasn’t worked in a company where there was conflict between employees?  What is less quantified nor appreciated is the cost of conflict.  Workplace Fairness West helpfully surfaced an infographic from The Danish Center for Conflict Resolution that illustrates the escalating forms of workplace conflict.

One sees how minor disagreements can grow.  When dialogue between colleagues has ceased, the organization immediately starts losing momentum.  If disagreements grow to hostility, or worse to disgust, then the organization no longer has its eyes on the ball.  Members of the organization are spending so much time and attention managing their internal dynamics, that they lose sight of the market dynamics.  The organization is destined to falter.   

The question is not whether or not conflict exists.  Of course it will exist.  Organizations have people, and people will have different views that can manifest as conflict.   Rather, if organizational health is THE defining indicator of success (as Lencioni insists), then the critical question is how do the members of an organization deal with and resolve their conflict?  

Frédéric Laloux proposes a fascinating solution to this intractable problem in his book Reinventing Organizations.  First he suggests that there are several different organizational models that organizations embody.  In an earlier post entitled “Matching People and Structures,” I suggested that one key to workplace satisfaction is making sure that one’s personality type is properly matched to the organization’s structures and practices where one works. (If you don’t feel aligned with the practices of your organization, maybe there’s a better organizational paradigm waiting for your out there.)

Laloux categorizes different types of organizations by color to avoid associating a personal judgment through the label he used.  In quick summary from the Reinventing Organizations Wiki the five main types of organizational paradigms are:

  • RED: In the Red paradigm, there is a dominant exercise of power by the boss or leader to keep others in line. Fear is the glue of the organization. In general, conflict is handled by suppression, power or dominance, and strict rules are enforced by fear of consequences…
  • AMBER: The Amber paradigm has formalized roles within a hierarchical pyramid structure and top-down command and control (what and how). Stability is valued above all and is maintained through clearly defined roles and processes…
  • ORANGE: In the Orange paradigm, there is also a hierarchical structure, but management is by objective (definition of the what; with more freedom on the how). In many Orange organizations, although there are formal conflict resolution procedures, conflict is often not well addressed. Although individuals are often encouraged to resolve disagreements by themselves, conflict may often need to be settled by intervention from a third party. This is most often done by referring the issue to the boss or by deferring to HR policies and procedures. These procedures create a level of objective independence from “the those” in conflict…
  • GREEN: The Green paradigm again uses a classical pyramid structure, but with a stronger focus on empowerment. Green organizations have values-based cultures that include principles of integrity, respect, and openness. There is a large investment in fostering collaboration, communication, problem solving and drafting agreements that meet underlying needs. These processes can sometimes remove the source of conflict. When they do arise, conflicts can take a long time to resolve as groups seek to find a harmonious solution. However, the boss is usually the final arbiter in conflict situations…
  • TEAL: In Teal organizations, conflict is seen as a natural part of human interaction and, when safely supported, is often viewed as healthy and creative. Conflict handled with grace and tenderness can create possibility and learning for all involved. In Teal organizations time is regularly devoted to surface and address conflicts in individual and group settings. Often formal, multi-step conflict resolution practices are used and everyone is trained in conflict management. Conflict is restricted to the parties involved, and mediators, or peers who might be asked to serve on a mediating panel. Such a panel rarely has the responsibility to impose a solution. The focus is instead on helping the involved parties find a solution…


TEAL organizations are described as “self-managing organizations.” Many of the organizing principles of self-management may be out of reach for most companies today, but important aspects of TEAL conflict management might still be applicable to organizations of different paradigms.  

In any organizational paradigm, it is helpful to document the process of how conflicts are resolved. 

In self-managing organizations, having a clear and well understood conflict resolution process helps people raise issues. Typical conflict resolution mechanisms include: one-on-one discussion, mediation by a peer and mediation by a panel. Some organizations also use team or individual coaching to work through an upset.

For example, :

  • In the first phase, the two people sit together and try to sort it out privately.
  • If they can’t find a solution agreeable to both, they nominate a colleague they both trust to act as a mediator. The mediator doesn’t impose a decision. Rather he or she supports the participants in coming to their own solution.
  • If mediation fails, a panel of topic-relevant colleagues is convened. Again the panel does not impose a solution.
  • If resolution is not found, the founder or president might be called into the panel to add to the panel’s moral weight (but again, not to impose a solution).


The most important aspect of this process is that the individuals in conflict are forthright with each other.  If they can’t find constructive resolution alone, they summon mediators to help them find common ground.  As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said in 1913, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”  Keeping dialogue open between the warring parties minimizes the negative practices that erode mutual respect and constructive collaboration.  This is a cornerstone of organizational health, and will directly contribute to competitive advantage in the marketplace.


I’ve often quoted Robert Frost’s famous poem about, “The road less traveled…and that made all the difference.”  I hear admonitions against staying inside the box, and encouragement for painting outside the lines. Sinatra sang, “I did it my way.”  There is no shortage of encouragement to go against the grain. 


A friend recently sent me a Biranna West quote that reads:

“Almost anything that truly calls your soul will take you off the certain and consistent path that a million others have carved out of the unknown.  It’s never going to be reasonable to travel, to pursue art, to love the person you love.  There will always be a reason not to, another thing you could or should or might be doing with your time.  Sometimes, in an effort to make sense of our lives, we end up more lost than ever because love isn’t logical, joy isn’t logical, passion isn’t logical.  You have to find the courage to paint outside the lines you once drew for yourself. ” 


When I read this quote, the encouragement to be unconventional hit me a little differently than it has in the past.  It dawned on me that these aphorisms of non-compliance have as their subtext that the unconventional path is preferable because the rewards are greater.  “…and that made all the difference,” said Frost.  We jump to the conclusion that, “all the difference” is measured by more goodness, more money, more recognition, or more accomplishment.  


But was Frost really saying that?  Jobs and Gates dropped out of college, and they became gazillionaires.  So their example suggests that the rewards are monetary or otherwise recognisable by our larger, materialistic society.


There’s a sampling bias.  We don’t hear about the ones that swam against the current and drowned.  The fact is, there is no guarantee of a given outcome.  We are not guaranteed to earn greater rewards if we tow the line and walk the conventional path checking the conventional boxes.  Neither are we guaranteed to win greater rewards by swimming against the current.  


The fact of the matter remains that we can’t anchor on the outcome at all.  What we must anchor on instead is that every day we are rewarded when we respond to the music in our hearts, and comply with its bidding.


I mentioned yesterday that creating a short list of your top 5-10 values can be a powerful filter for finding the flow of the Universe.  How does this work?


The next step in this process is to describe your ideal life in the major parameters that matter to you most.  Typical areas include, career, finances, family, love, spirituality, fun, learning and health.  


The challenge in describing your ideal life in these areas is that it is hard to parse what is your own authentic interest and desire, versus what are things you are “supposed” to strive for according to outside constructs like cultural norms or family expectations, etc.  It is easy to find yourself carrying the expectations of outside constructs without realizing that they may not actually resonate with you. 


So by listing out the values you hold today, you can see whether or not the descriptions of your life that you are putting to paper square with the values themselves.  If you state “Adventure and Risk” as a key value, but are working toward a career as an accountant, you would want to examine if your values and goals are aligned.  (Maybe they are.  This is primarily an exercise to expose your basic assumptions for examination.)


There is much to say about how to craft one’s declarations that I may return to in future posts.  The point I want to make here is that once your declarations are on paper, reading them outloud to yourself every day tunes your mind to opportunities that support your intentions.  With this conscious tuning, you unlock resources and support that might have remained dormant otherwise.  To paraphrase Goethe, “Commit yourself fully to a goal, and the Universe will reveal and unleash resources and support you never realized existed.”


Yesterday I speculated that the wisest career advice I could offer was to find the flow of the Universe, and jump into the middle of it.  I stand by that suggestion.  The challenge is figuring out what that flow is, and then navigating the balance between it and your own free will.


There are a number of practices that are helpful.  Perhaps I’ll dive into each over the course of the upcoming posts?  


The first is defining your values.  


Values are not immutable, but they are reflective of what you believe and feel today.  Life is dynamic, and values can shift over time, but they tell us a lot about what matters to us today.  For that reason, it makes sense to document which values you hold most dear, and revisit that list periodically to make sure that what used to matter to you still does.  If not, repeat the values exercise to generate a fresh list.  Even if you did a values-sorting exercise in your career planning before, use this new list to measure what you’re doing today.  


The system is straightforward.  Find an inventory list of common values.  Sort them into Important, Very Important, and Less Important columns.  Then take the list of Very Important values and force rank them by evaluating each one against each other value.  Place each in the order of most important to least important from within this sub-group of Very Important values. 


Once you have this rank-ordered list, evaluate the top five to ten, and see if you can name a top five to seven overall most important values.  If you can list no more than seven values that matter to you the most, you are on your way to creating a filter to help you find the flow in your Universe. 


Happy Easter.


I’m old, and I’ve been around the block.  The years have hewn off some of my sharp edges.  Looking back, I can see that the piss and vinegar of my youth sent me in directions that I would not choose for myself today.  I was so sure that I knew what I needed to do.  To my credit, I stayed the course and was “above all else, true to myself.”  But did that serve me in the end?


My conclusion on this question is split.  On the one hand, yes, it absolutely served me.  I had questions I needed to answer.  I needed to test my mettle.  I wanted to know what I was made of.  The challenges I pursued revealed the answers to these questions.  In that sense, I would not be as solidly certain of who I am today had I shied away from exploring and answering these questions then.  


On the other hand, while my earliest efforts were rich in self-actualization, they were sparse in the conventional measures of success.  As an example, I graduated class of 1993 from college in the San Francisco Bay Area.  Had I stayed put and joined almost any company in Silicon Valley in the following year, I would have ridden the wave of the Dot Com boom.  Instead I took a rust belt job in Buffalo, New York.  


I think back on that time and feel as if I had blinders on.  I had not been curious.  I had not paid attention to what was happening all around me, right in front of my own nose.  I was too stuck in pig headed perseverance to notice. 


These days I think the wiser tack is to figure out where the Universe is flowing, and jump into the middle of that.  


The December 5, 2021 edition of T – The New York Times Style Magazine quotes Hayao Miyazaki as saying, “When you meet something that is very strange that you haven’t met before, instead of being scared of it, try to connect with it.”  It is a simple statement with many similar permutations and vast implications.  


The fact is, the impulse to understand and judge gets in our way.  That impulse is its own construct.  It is one that we take as a given, but it is simply an assumption we’ve never examined.  


I had a spontaneous conversation with a middle aged woman at a memorial service last week who reminded me that this assumption still works within me despite my intention to transcend it.  As we began to speak, she gave me two signals that I took at face value.  She described herself as “always looking for two pennies to scrape together” and winced at the suggestion that completing her MBA in her 30’s must have been a great experience.  


Without realizing it, I subconsciously crafted a perception that she was impoverished.  What our continued conversation revealed was that she had enjoyed a fascinating, satisfying, unconventional career in the fashion industry, even starting her own label.  She had designed her own clothes as well as managed the business.  While she may not have vast financial fortunes, she was rich in experience, vitality, creativity, and agency.  


By the end, I felt our conversation ended too quickly.  What had I known at the outset?  Nothing.  I had even used her cues to construct a faulty first impression, ostensibly from the information she herself provided.  I had not factored that she might be sending false signals.  Absent curiosity, I could easily have missed her truth and her magic. 


Last week I attended the memorial service of a neighbor who died suddenly of unexpected causes.  The neighborhood showed up in strength, and after the formal eulogies, the impromptu memories shared by those who knew him in the neighborhood were simultaneously beautiful and heart breaking.  


He worked at a local business for several decades, but I never knew him to be flustered by work deadlines or overloaded with assignments.  To the contrary, he had always seemed particularly present when I bumped into him on the sidewalk.  What I learned from his circle of friends was that he had moved into the neighborhood after growing up on the opposite coast.  While he always retained a twinge of his original accent, he had made our neighborhood his home.


He knew all the local businesses and patronized them as his own personal investment in their success.  He met his neighbors, and he introduced them to his own friends and to the businesses of the neighborhood.  During the pandemic, he gathered friends on the front steps of their houses.  A text thread announced the next meeting spot and time.  Those who considered themselves his friends, and so many did, came out in droves. 


I realized that what might have seemed as a lack of ambition or career focus, was actually a commitment to the fabric of life.  This neighbor wove the fabric itself together with his attention and his care.  At the height of the pandemic, he knew all the businesses, how they were fairing, and how they had adapted, or not, to the latest circumstances.  


These were not the marks of lack of ambition.  These were the marks of care, and commitment to a community, and a willingness to accept the present in all its imperfections and enjoy it nonetheless.


I’m a big believer in crafting declarations for oneself that outline the pillars of one’s ideal life.  Write them out, distill them as far as one can, and then read them aloud to oneself every day. Over the course of time they can have a seemingly mythical power to gently bend one’s life’s trajectory in that direction.  Do this in each major domain of your life, and watch the magic start to happen.


Occasionally I’ll get a key question.  It is usually a version of, “How do I define my ideal life?  I’m not sure if what I aspire toward is my own authentic desire or is it a goal that I’ve been conditioned to want by my family, my society, my media, or some other source that is not actually me?”  


There is a strategy for addressing this question.  It is true that with so many forces seeking to influence us, it is hard to know what is authentically our own.  In fact, some might argue that there is nothing that is authentically our own, and that we are completely the product of our culture and environment.  I’m not sure I want to go that far. 


A life well-lived is one lived consistent with one’s values.  It is not necessarily that it was easy or fun or comfortable.  In fact, a demonstrably difficult, struggling life may still be very well lived and satisfying for the individual if it was in alignment with the person’s values.  So the short answer to the first question is, “Are my declarations in alignment with my values?”  If so, then whatever the source of the goal (i.e. – authentic self, family, society, media, etc.), the person will likely arrive at some future point and be satisfied with the path they traveled. 


I believe that there are three core disciplines of entrepreneurship – command of opportunity, organization and self.  There are combinations of those three factors that work well, and others that don’t.  


For some who are highly oriented to a command-and-control mindset, a self-managed organization is not compatible, neither as an organization such a person would lead nor as an organization where such a person would work.  The counter perspective is also true.  A command-and-control managed organization will not be a happy environment for one who sees others as extensions of themselves, who honors the whole person in another, and who is open to serendipity and unlocking the inherent intelligence and capabilities.  


This is not to suggest that one variety of management system is inherently better than another, or that one personality type is inherently better than another.  What matters is that there is alignment between the styles and culture of organization and individual.  When properly matched to organizational structures that align with their personality and preferences, individuals can soar.   


This is an important reminder for managers.  Managers that seek to distribute decision-making authority into the organization will likely experience push-back from employees who expect a more hierarchical decision-making process.  Before the employees will be comfortable assuming decision-making authority, the manager will need to develop their people to understand the ground rules of how decisions can happen in a more distributed way, and what happens when things go well and when they do not.  Can the manager guarantee that their people will be safe in either scenario?  


As such, there is much more to culture than snacks in the kitchenette and foosball tables.  Culture results from the totality of small decisions and actions taken within the framework of organizational governance and management. 


I’m borrowing part of my “About Me” page to introduce here the concept of “economic engines”.  It was a revelation to me at the dawning of the new millennium.  Perhaps I was late to the party.  When I looked up again 20 years later, I found many people talking about business as an economic engine.  

You can find more pictures at

In the meantime, here is the text of that page:

When I applied to business school in 1998, the application questions prompted me to reflect on my life and define what mattered to me.  Through that process I realized that the prior decade of my father’s career was instructive in a way I had not realized as it was happening.  My father went to work for AmeriCares ten years prior when I was a junior in high school in 1988.  

As a idealistic youth, I had aspired to combat social inequality through my work, but I did not have the stomach for politics nor the patience for “pass the hat” philanthropy.  When prompted by my business school applications to reflect upon my life, I saw in the origin story of AmeriCares an example of how business can serve as an economic engine to power any number of objectives.  AmeriCares was not the engine.  Rather it was AmeriCares’ founder Bob Macauley’s paper company, Virginia Fiber, that served as the economic engine that powered the good works at AmeriCares.  Virginia Fiber contributed significantly to AmeriCares’ operating budget, and with this benefactor to fund its base operations, AmeriCares was able to become one of the preeminent humanitarian relief agencies in the world.  AmeriCares’ prided itself on arriving first to tragic disasters anywhere in the world, providing critical first aid and life support until governments and NGOs fill in behind with longer-term services and reconstruction.

AmeriCares often took public figures on humanitarian airlifts. Here George H.W. Bush and his wife Barbara deplane after returning from an airlift to Guatemala. My father speaks to the media from the podium on the right. This framed picture hangs in his office today.

The example of AmeriCares, or specifically of Virginia Fiber, highlighted to me that learning to build businesses and then teaching that skill to underserved communities, would allow individuals in those communities to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and achieve economic parity with better-served communities.  With this realization, I focused my career on learning how to launch and run businesses the old-fashioned way, growing them from operating income rather than through venture investment.  It was hard slogging, but those trenches taught me invaluable lessons on running, growing and selling businesses.