Diversity and Workplace Conflict

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We humans are incredibly diverse as a species. Our differences exist on so many different levels, they are hard to meaningfully enumerate. These differences, diversity, are what makes life interesting and challenging. On our worst days in our exasperation, we say to ourselves, “Why can’t she be more like me?” We breathe a silent request for greater similarity and uniformity.

I speak and write often on the subject of interpersonal conflict (its nature, development, prevention and resolution) in the workplace. By far, the most frequent answer I receive to the question, “What causes conflict?” is this idea of differences or diversity. Common thinking suggests that it is the differences that create the conflict. This is an answer I love to question.

If diversity is the problem or the root of the problem of conflict, then what would be the answer? Eliminating diversity (for the sake of reducing conflict or any other reason) has horrific consequences. The Third Reich tried that. Sudan is currently pursuing this option. Uniformity is not the answer in any situation. As Patrick Lencioni has wisely pointed out, eliminating the good form of conflict (healthy diversity) that prevents the dysfunction of groupthink is ill conceived.

We need diversity of all sorts in the workplace (ethnic, gender, temperament, etc.). We cannot achieve our best and most creative results without the diverse contributions of people who widely vary from one another. We also, then, need to better understand how to work within a diverse team environment in a way that minimizes the potential contributions to conflict that arise from our differences.

Two common areas of difference that sometimes contribute to the intensity of conflict are found in aspects of team members that we measure in our coaching and team-related services: behavioral style and motivators.

Behavioral style is the predictably different (1 out of 384 possible patterns) way we each deal with life (problems, people, pace, procedures). It is descriptive of more than our behavior and extends into the way we think as well. It is the easiest difference to see as it is outwardly visible once we have a paradigm to understand, a language of human behavior. This language is usefully described by the DISC assessment. It, unlike other theories of human behavior and their related assessments, seems to be the “stickiest,” the easiest for teams to internalize and use in a meaningful way. Understanding our diversity in terms of the way we each think and behave differently is a key to preventing and reducing conflict.

Workplace motivators are the different drives or values we have that inform our passion about some things and dispassion about others. When you value x, and I value y, we have fuel for judging each other’s priorities in the midst of a developing conflict. Knowing these differences in advance, however, allows us to anticipate the coming clash of values. Understanding our diversity in terms of the way we each value different things is another key to preventing and reducing team conflict.

In these two significant areas of diversity as well as many others, the work put into developing a healthy culture of diversity pays off in myriad ways. I disagree with the common thought that we have conflict because we are different. Instead, I believe we have conflict because we fail to value the wonderful differences between us related to how we behave and what fuels our passion. Diversity can’t be the problem; it’s the answer.

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