Everyone will experience conflict in the workspace, whether
with a co-worker, customer, supplier, or even the boss, because in life,
conflict is inevitable. By identifying your particular approach to
conflict, using the symbolic 'animals' – turtle, teddy bear, fox, shark
or owl – you will better understand how you manage that stress in your
Within our daily interactions, eventually your wants, needs, or ideas
are bound to be contrary to those of another person but it is
worthwhile to remember that it can always be minimised, diverted or
resolved before it becomes an unmanageable monster. There will always be
early indicators of trouble brewing with complementary resolution
strategies that can be applied.
Conflict is never about simple inaptness, but is often connected to a
previous issue. Wherever there is poor communication, power seeking,
dissatisfaction with management style, weak leadership, lack of openness
or a change in leadership, conflict begins.
The Shark cares nothing about relationships, but will do anything to
win. The Turtle waits till the storm passes before coming out of his
shell. The warm and fuzzy Teddy Bear just wants to get along. The Fox is
a deal-maker that gives a little and takes a little but doesn't get
very far in strengthening the relationship. Finally, the wise old Owl
symbolises the person who wants a win-win situation where we all meet
our goals, and also preserve our relationships.
Which of these are you? You probably will also find that you change
roles, depending on who you're fighting with. Conflict is destructive
when it takes attention away from other important activities and
undermines morale. As a dispute polarises people and groups, cooperation
is reduced and differences are sharpened and increased.
Conflict is constructive when it results in clarification of
important problems and issues and results in solutions. It is important
to involve the people concerned and resolve an issue that is important
to them. Authentic communication helps release anxiety, emotion and
stress and builds cooperation as people learn more about each other. By
helping individuals develop understanding and skills, all involved join
in resolving the conflict.
Conflict itself isn't a problem. Problems result from the way people
handle conflicts. Depending on how we see the situation, we choose to be
one of the totem animals mentioned before. As long as we are not
habitually one of these animals, we can choose how to behave.
Sometimes the only sensible thing to do is to stick our heads in our
shell, be a turtle and let those with the most at stake work things out.
Turtles deal with conflict by avoiding it. This can be useful if this
isn't the right time and place to address this issue but typically
results in a "I lose, you lose" scenario. The turtle doesn't get what
they want, and the person they have the conflict with doesn't get the
problem resolved. However, this can be useful if the conflict is small
and relationships are at stake or if you need time to cool off and get
more information. Can also be right if there are more important issues
pressing and you have limited time, or when you feel you have no power
and feel there is no chance of getting your concerns met. Also,
sometimes you are too emotionally involved and others around you can
solve the conflict more successfully. However, when being a turtle,
important decisions are often made by default, and postponing may just
make matters worse.
Other times, being a big accommodating teddy bear is what is called
for where working towards a common purpose is more important than any
peripheral concerns. The teddy bear's mantra is "I lose, you win" and
fits when the trauma of confronting differences may damage fragile
relationships. By appeasing others and downplaying the conflict you can
protect the relationship. Teddy bears are useful when an issue is not as
important to you as to the other person or if you realise you are
wrong. Can also be useful when you want to let others learn by mistake
or when you know you cannot win. Sometimes the timing is not right and
you decide to build credit for the future with harmony as your goal. The
teddy bear only works when parties have a good deal more in common than
their differences, and often one's own ideas don't get attention, and
credibility and influence can be lost.
And other times of emergency when someone has to decide quickly what
must be done or command situations in which only one person can or
should decide, then the shark is your guy. His "I win, you lose"
features when goals are extremely important and one must use power to
win. If you know you are right, time is short and a quick decision is
imperative, then being a shark is appropriate. Also if a strong
personality is trying to steamroller you and you need to stand up for
your rights, but be warned, sharks can escalate conflict and losers can
If the stakes are low enough (or high enough) for both parties to
give up something important to keep the peace, being a compromising fox
may be just the ticket. The fox ensures that each person can maintain
some of their original position and all work towards the middle and the
'common good'. The philosophy is one of "I bend, you bend" and works
great when people of equal status are both committed to moderately
important goals, and when time can be saved by reaching intermediate
settlements on individual parts of complex issues. Negatively, this
process can spawn cynicism and derail important values and longterm
objectives. It also may not work if the initial demands are too great –
especially if there's no commitment to honour the compromise solutions.
And, in those situations where issues are strong and divisive but
people truly need each other, an owl-like approach is called for. In
such situations, only mutually developed and supported resolutions are
any resolutions at all. Other solutions tend to fall apart because
people are so intent on their own outcomes that they withhold or distort
information, hide their true feelings, or are unwilling to honor
commitments they halfheartedly agreed to.
The style that works best in most situations is the collaborative
Owl. It is the owl's "I win, you win" approach that is fundamental to
teamwork and cooperation. By helping everyone achieve their goals while
maintaining relationships, this harmonising animal works through
differences and leads to creative solutions that will satisfy everyone
concerned. The owl will only be effective if there is a high level of
trust and you don't want full responsibility but rather others to have
'ownership' of solutions. It is useful when the people involved are
willing to change their thinking and work through their animosity and
hard feelings. The drawback is that the process takes a lot of energy
and some people may take advantage of other people's trust and openness.
So we can see that there is a "right" way – or at least a more
productive way – to resolve our conflicts than by the blind turtling,
foxing, teddy bearing, and sharking people usually do. The way of the
owl is the way of sharing our information and our results, the way of
identifying mutual goals and keeping our harmony in the workplace. By
being aware of how we behave when experiencing problems with others, we
can better choose the right solution towards our current goals and move
away from conflict being such a destructive force.