Perception and Conflict Resolution

The eyes see only what the mind is prepared to comprehend. – Robertson Davies

In an organization, conflicts are inevitable. There will always be very intuitive and impulsive people that can’t stand too much planning while others will be very anxious if there is no structured approach to a problem. Moreover, there will always be some people that have issues with authority (rebels). Whatever the cause, conflicts are inevitable, and it is the manager’s role to solve them and make the team productive and achieving.

Facts do not make decisions, persons do.

For managers, one big problem is that our perception of the reality is biased. There are many known perceptual biases. However, I believe two of them are more interesting when in a conflict situation.

  • The confirmation bias: we favor information that confirms our hypotheses.
    We all have a tendency to see what we are looking for. Let’s take the example of a manager that assumes that one of his employees always ships at the last minute. The cause of the behavior may be circumstantial (personal and temporary issues). However, in the following projects, the manager’s perception will spot every detail that could lead him to think that this project will be shipped at the last minute, even if, in the facts, everything is right on track. The manager will only see the information that confirms his hypothesis (that employee is always last minute) and will unconsciously discard any information proving the anti-thesis (the employee is on time).
  • The correspondence bias (fundamental attribution error): we over-value personality-based explanations for the observed behaviors of others while under-valuing situational explanations for those behaviours.
    Going back to our example, the manager unconsciously made the hypothesis that the employee was lazy and laid back. This assumption was made without checking with him why was he late. In this case, he would have known that the person would be only temporarily demotivated because of a temporary issue.

With this in mind, how do we solve the conflict?

There is no unique way to solve a conflict. The solution may vary from the composition of a team, from the conflict’s nature, and much more. However, a few rules may be of good use, to prevent a manager’s perception from biasing the conflict resolution:

  • Know yourself. Is the problem really coming from the employee or is it coming from the manager (projection)?
  • The manager should stay on the facts. A manager is not a psychologist. He should describe the conflict in terms of facts and only act on the facts.

Easier said than done.

What do you think it takes when it comes to solving conflicts?

Sources and inspiration:

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