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spike bullet August 2007 - Conflict Resolution

Managing Conflict in the Office
Our Three Brains
Our Choices
Management Tips
Resources (links, books, articles, the lighter side)

color bulletManaging Conflict Resolution in the Office

By Val Gee

All conflict comes from people taking things personally.  This happens when they operate from the animal brain.  The only way to stop conflict is for one or both people to switch to their human brain and look at the situation objectively.  

Our Three Brains

To understand how to do this, we first have to look at our three brains.

The oldest is the reptilian brain situated at the base of the skill.  It operates automatically and without thought to keep the heart, lungs and organs working at their optimal level.

Above that is the animal brain or limbic system, which operates from survival and fear.  Think of an animal — it doesn’t do much except eat, sleep and reproduce.  If it feels threatened, it triggers the flight or fight syndrome, which is fine for an animal living in a forest or out on the veldt — not so good for the human animal working with other people in an office.

Surrounding the animal brain is the human brain or cerebral cortex.  We are the only ones with it and it operates from love, peace and harmony.  The human brain wants to fulfill a purpose in life whether that be inventing a new product, creating a new process, setting goals, managing people or any of the hundreds of different types of jobs and careers available to us.  

The human brain is in charge of discipline and of doing all the things that make people feel good about themselves — like being on time, completing things, doing a good job, volunteering, showing compassion, listening and understanding.

In-between the brains is something scientists call the Reticular Activating System (RAS).  It is the key to ‘turning on your brain" and is connected at its base to the spinal cord.  It runs up to the mid brain and is a very complex collection of neurons, which serve as a point of convergence where signals from the external world meet with the internal world. 

In other words, it is the part of the brain where the world outside meets the inside world of thoughts and feelings.  It is the point at which either the animal or human brain is triggered.  

Our Choices

  • If conflict triggers the animal brain, fight or flight will ensue.
  • If conflict triggers the human brain, resolution begins.

The way to trigger the RAS and switch on the human brain is through awareness and realizations, "Oh wow — I just got angry again — that was my animal brain.    I’m going to switch to my human brain and take a conscious breath and switch to my human brain to get a fresh perspective."  

The evolving human being does not expect to operate all the time from the human brain — it does expect however, to operate more and more from that place and to have some discipline and control over the RAS and ultimately the animal brain.

As a manager, you have a team of people who are operating from the animal and human brain.  You already know the 10-20% of employees who operate mostly from their animal brains because you recognize the traits: they come in late, always have an excuse, under-perform and get angry or defensive when confronted.  

The other 70-80% of your team operates mostly from their human brain and only switches to their animal brain when some kind of conflict arises.  Your job as a manager is to switch to your human brain and deal with the situation as fast as possible.  And since you are dealing with mostly animal brains (in a conflict situation), it is helpful to use animal training tactics, which are all about reinforcing and strengthening certain behaviors.

The easiest and most effective tactic for a manager to use is positive reinforcement.  This means starting or adding something good that the person likes or enjoys — something that will cause them to repeat the certain behavior that made it happen in the first place.  

On a basic level, the dolphin gets a fish for doing a trick.  The worker gets a paycheck for working.

Conversely, our society also uses forms of punishment as a consequence for wrong behavior.  For example, a speeding driver gets a fine and a ticket. Sometimes a manager will find it necessary to stop certain behavior by using punishment tactics.  However, for a happy environment and a positive attitude, rewards may be the best way to go.

Management Tips

Here are the tactics:

1. Reinforce certain behavior with rewards:

  • Give something good - or - 
  • Take something bad away.

2. Stop certain behavior with punishment:

  • Give something bad - or - 
  • Take something good away.

Examples of how the reward and punishment tactics apply in the office:

1.    Reinforce behavior by giving something good as a reward: Bill comes to you with a grievance and wants coaching to find a solution.  You reinforce his behavior by giving recognition.  "Bill, the fact that you want to be coached to find a solution displays excellent conflict resolution skills."

2.    Reinforce behavior by taking something bad away as a reward: Mary is a hard worker — and has been coaching Jim, the new person.  She hates it and her work is suffering as a result.  "Mary, thank you for coaching Jim, I’m going to let Bob take over now."

3.    Stopping certain behavior by giving something bad as a punishment: Jack is chronically late to meetings, which affect the team.  "Jack I want you to complete a time log each day until you start getting to meetings on time."

4.    Stopping certain behavior by taking something good away as a punishment: Kathy, asked you to coach her on work issues.  However she is telling you all her personal problems.  "Kathy, I want you to focus on work.  I’m stopping the coaching until you’ve completed all your current projects and get back on track."

Whatever technique you use to resolve conflict, be sure to operate from your human brain, because when all is said and done, people learn most by example … yours!


Copyright © 2007 Val Gee, All rights reserved. Used with permission of author.

About the author: Val Gee has published four books with McGraw-Hill, The Winner’s Attitude, Super Service, The Customer Service Toolkit and her latest, OPEN Question Selling (March 2007).  Before co-founding McNeil & Johnson with her husband, Val worked as a sales rep for Pitney Bowes and gained top sales award in her first year.  She began her writing career as a consultant and instructional designer developing and producing hundreds of employee training programs for companies such as Motorola, Hyatt Hotels, Siemens, Baxter Pharmaceutical and many more. Over the past ten years, Val has been facilitating seminars based on her books to companies such as: Computer Associates, MB Financial Bank, St Anthony’s Hospital, Motorola.

Val Gee
McNeil & Johnson Learning Company
24089 N Forest Drive 
Lake Zurich, Il 60047
Phone: (847) 438 9366   
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Related newsletter articles:
    February 2003 - Agree and Disagree in Peace
    August 2002 - Resolving Interpersonal Conflicts
    October 2004 - Conflict Resolution: Winning Without War
    February 2005 - Conflict and Conflict Resolution
    September 2006 - The Power of Thought
    September, 1996 - Motivating Employees

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