By True North Learning Director and Senior Facilitator Errol Amerasekera

More often than not, at the heart of conflict lies our perceptions and feelings about power. It is often one’s sense of power (or powerlessness) that compels us to go to war, or to escalate an already existing conflict.

My learning in this area came whilst working in Sri-Lanka in 2007 as a conflict resolution facilitator. I was there with the aim to be a part of the peace process that would end the civil war that had ravaged the country for decades.

As we travelled around the country facilitating various workshops, forums and meetings, I started to see some recurrent themes. Both sides of the conflict, in this case the Government-backed Sinhalese and Tamil Tigers, believed the other side had more power. The Tamils felt oppressed by the socio-economic divide within the country and their lack of political influence. This led them to feel hopeless that the situation would ever change. The Sinhalese lived in fear that a bomb or terrorist attack could occur any place, or at any time. They felt bound by bureaucracy and of having to take actions that were seen to be ethical and legal, whereas the Tamil Tigers could resort to any means eg terrorism to exert their influence.

What became clear in facilitating these forums was that both sides felt powerless relative to the other. Both sides felt marginalised and oppressed by the power of the other. Yet both sides put a brave face on, summoned up the “power” they felt  they did have, and then used that power against the other. In the case of the Sinhalese it was the continuation of a political system that could be viewed as unjust. And in the case of the Tamil Tigers, it was to resort to the unpredictable and fear-inducing tactic of terrorism.

Some of the turning points at these forums, those moments when there was a temporary resolution to the violence, and both sides were on the same page, occurred when we were able to facilitate individuals or group to acknowledge that they were suffering. There is something about the authenticity of suffering, the raw element of human vulnerability, which makes it very difficult to escalate violence. Perhaps it is because in admitting and showing that we are hurting, we make the other side more aware of the impact that their power has on us. And in realising that power, they have less need to exert more power or escalate a conflict. Or perhaps it is because in revealing our vulnerability, we remind the other of their vulnerability, and in that moment we are both the same in that suffering.

So what does this mean for business? One of the best mechanisms to resolve and manage conflict within the workplace is to acknowledge (at least to yourself) the impact that the conflict is having on you. If you can acknowledge it to the party that you’re in conflict with, all the better. In doing this we allow the other side to see that their actions are having an impact and that they have some power. If they continue to feel powerless it is then that they seek additional ways to exert their power and influence such as forming anti-management coalitions, under performing and reducing morale, or in extreme cases litigation (where the intention is to align themselves with a very powerful force – the legal system).

I realise that this flies in the face of most corporate cultures, especially the Australian corporate culture with its sometimes harsh exterior and “She’ll be right mate” attitude. However as leaders and managers perhaps part of our personal and professional development is to find ways to lead that are more authentic and real. And in doing that, be more transparent about how things like workplace conflict impacts us and affects us.

To find out more about how True North Learning works with conflict in organisations visit us at http://truenorthlearning.com.au/cultural-alignment/conflict-management.php