Conflict-free Workplaces and Friction-less Surfaces

The frictionless surface is a concept from the writings of Galileo Galilei, wherein he considered horizontal and vertical forces acting upon any two bodies.  However, he did not contemplate friction – the inherent property of a non-zero force applied by any mass to another. 

Akin to the laws of the physical world, the concept of friction exists in the shape of conflict between any two opinions – be they two different people or even within the mind of an individual.  

Conflict is “an active disagreement between people with opposing opinions or principles”, or “a difference that prevents agreement: disagreement between ideas, feelings, etc.”  The sting of these phrases lies in their tail.  The actions of disagreement or difference are applied to the subjects “opinion, principle, idea or feeling. 

Empirically it can be argued that no two minds can be exact replicas of one another.  The variance is not just in the experiences but even in time or place of the numerous encounters.  These play a part in creation of the subconscious mind; thus, ruling out an exact match in thoughts, opinions, views or feelings. 

Hence conflict, like friction, is inherent and inevitable to our being.  Once we get that, the focus can shift from the what and why of conflict to the when and how of catching it and managing it.   

There are physical early warning signs of conflict at the workplace.  The list is by no means comprehensive, but one would typically see: 

  • Productivity drop and delayed projects 
  • Problem focus in conversations 
  • Externalization of issues, reduced introspection 
  • Emergence of camps and group ideologies 
  • Increased hostility and frustration 
  • Headaches, neck and backaches, and above all 
  • Visible confusion 

Same as friction exists between surfaces even if there is no relative motion, conflict exists even if the workplace is devoid of visible signs.  The first step towards managing conflict is to consider how we can view it – not as an adversary but an aid.  It is there and it is necessary. 

It is indeed friction that provides the first foothold for movement, without which a body would just slip and slide indefinitely.  Similarly, conflict with the state of “where I am” is the first step towards the push for “where I want to be”.  The idea can be extrapolated to teams, organizations and even communities. 

A discussion about the utility of conflict in the workplace can release the creativity about individual views, opinions and feelings in the light of the task at hand.  In my view such a debate can bring out actionable next steps for managing conflict for the participating team, group or organization.  What do you think? 

As to the motto of managing conflict, there is no universal rulebook, paintbrush or magic wand.  I’d say ask your teams “What friction (conflict) do you want to be a part of? The one under the wheels of the wagon or the wind against?  And how?  Then sit back, absorb, participate and enjoy the ride towards the conflict management culture that is democratically attained. 

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