Conflict in the Workplace

Conflict should be encouraged in the workplace. Not avoided.

Host: Kevin is going to just break everything you ever believed about conflict because we are talking about conflict in the workplace. But he says something that shocks me. A week ago we were talking about bosses and employees from hell. And we looked at the crisis, we looked at the conflict, we looked at everything that has to do with dealing with bosses from hell if there's such a thing.

My guest says that conflict is good, in fact, he says, you want conflict if you want to succeed as a company. He says it's good for the workplace and he gives examples of successful companies like Amazon. Corporate cultures should encourage conflict.

The undeniable choice for a guest for this podcast is Kevin Hanegan. He brings a wealth of knowledge on the subject of conflict in the workplace. Kevin, thanks a gazillion times for saying yes and for availing yourself. First, maybe introduce yourself. Tell the world who is Kevin Hanegan?

Kevin: Thanks, I'm looking forward to it. As you mentioned, my name's Kevin Hanegan, based in Massachusetts. During the day, I work as the chief learning officer at a data and analytics software company called Qlik. I also have a passion around the concept of using data to make better decisions as leaders of organizations.

And it's kind of where it has led to what we are talking about today, about the idea of conflict. I wouldn't just say in the workplace, I would just say conflict in general, under certain criteria is seen as a healthy, positive, and necessary thing.

Host: Tell me, how did you first get started in this journey of you dealing, handling, and actually starting conflict in general? Relationships. Marriages, workplace, family, anywhere.

Kevin: As most good stories start, it started at the complete opposite of where I was expecting it to end up. I am an introvert and always, from growing up and in college, and even when I started out at my first jobs, was a conflict avoider.

And, you know, I tried to understand why, and I did a lot of tests like Myers Briggs (MBTI) and DISC profiles and the feedback was I was almost too empathetic. I avoided conflict. But what that actually did was it turned the negative of that into a positive. As I was able to take a step back and say to myself, well, Kevin, why is conflict needed?

Why is conflict needed in your personal life? Why is it needed in the workplace? Why is it needed within your social circles. It really depends on what your goals are. But if, if you want to innovate, you want to grow, you wanna understand people more, conflict is a actually a productive thing when used properly..

So I started reframing it. From "I don't want to have that awkward conversation. I'm just gonna hope it goes away" to "This is great. It's an opportunity to understand. It's an opportunity for ideally them to understand and it's an opportunity for both of us to grow and be better off as a result."

And then I started practicing it and you know what? There's something to be said about this. As you learn more, you understand more, you grow more. And most importantly for organizations or individuals, you actually innovate and you get better output as a result.

And it all started because I was shy and I was conflict averse.

Host: Yes. You started as a conflict avoider, but today you are a conflict arranger or encourager, if I can put it that way. Let's start first by asking the million dollar question. Maybe if we can understand that first. What is conflict? And what constitutes a conflict?

Kevin: Yeah, it's a good point because I still don't like screaming matches and stuff. So to your point, you have to understand what conflict is. Conflict is when two or more people philosophically have different thoughts, principles, ideas about how to move forward with something, how to make a decision, how to act.

A lot of times it's based on cultural differences. People have different values and beliefs that maybe are completely different than my values from my culture. Sometimes it's more, or sometimes it's just, Honestly, if its out of ignorance, we do this because we don't know any better. And so to me, conflict is when you have a decision to be made, you have a process to follow.

And that decision could be, who do I hire? Where do I go for dinner? What's our lifetime goals with our partners and spouses? When two or more people don't agree on what the answer is or what the value is. It doesn't mean it's a shouting match. It ideally shouldn't be too emotional.

Host: Hmm. What are some of the most common workplace conflicts or common conflicts?

Kevin: Many people in organizations agree on what the visual and goals are. Conflicts come up alot more around activities and programs to help drive the organization to those goals. The other thing that comes up a lot in an organization,there are situations where you're in a conflict where no one's wrong. In fact, those are the ones you want.

You want to get into a win-win situation. Let's say you're in sales and I'm in marketing, and you both have the same goal. The goal is to drive more money into the business. You might say, okay, well I am going to, in sales, I am going to triple the number of sales employees we hire.

More boots on the ground, more quota, more sales. What they might not realize if they are thinking in a silo, is that impacts the rest of the organization. They're not thinking systemically. So then you look at maybe the marketing organization or the human resources organization, they say, well, I have to support all those 10 x more people and currently I cannot.

Maybe there's a different way to do it that's going to completely break our pipeline. And so a lot of their conflicts in organizations happen because people are not thinking about the rest of the system. They're thinking about their department, their individual goal, and it's not malicious. It's not that they're mean people. It's not that they're bad employees, It's just our brains work linearly and we need to think systemically.

Host: Talking about the brain, maybe I'll park the brain and come back to it because you also have the law to say about that. But you say conflict is good for the work. And I believe it'll also be good for the relationship, good for the marriage, good for any setup where there's a team working together.

Why? What will make it good? And you say it's the same kind of conflict that has worked for companies like Amazon. Really. Break that down. For someone like me who likes starting a fight, I love starting a fight in a good way. You know, I don't like a place that is too quiet. I want some noise.

Kevin: Let's try to answer it by starting with the opposite and then we'll work back to it. So if you have an organization that doesn't embrace challenging or conflict or whichever, then you are going to run into a situation called groupthink.

Listeners can google that term if they have not heard of it before. Basically the idea is, someone doesn't feel empowered or they just, for whatever reason, they, they don't agree with what's happening, but they either say, You know what? everyone else on the team agrees with it. I'm probably wrong, so I'm not gonna say anything or everyone else on the team agrees with it. I know it's wrong, but I know they're gonna get mad at me. Or my boss is going to get mad at me, their not gonna listen, so I don't say anything. And so when you have that type of culture where people don't want to give their perspective, especially if it goes against a leader or the majority, they are not going to share their story.

And the problem with that is their story is important. And many times their story is actually a critical piece of the puzzle that helps solve and make things better, but they feel suppressed. And then do you think the next time it happens, they're gonna be jumping up and down, trying to find out? No.

They're gonna say, Well, other people are just gonna figure it out. So they don't push, they don't. go forward. So now you go towards what the opposite looks like. When you have organizations that embrace conflict, with healthy conflict, they will set up groups to go against each other with different perspectives, almost like a debate. If you're listening to a debate, the intention is you hear both sides and you make an educated decision after that. The beauty of that is you have to hear both sides, and so organizations will say, okay, we need to reach our goal in five months. I want to hear 10 strategies for how to do that.

But before we go on, I just wanna highlight that that requires people to change the way that they think and act. And what I mean by that is, yes, you can say I as an organization, I like conflict, but, it is more than just saying I don't think you're right. It's explaining why, and, and here is where human nature and the brain fault come in. 90% of every discussion in an organization is just that.It is a discussion.

And what actually happens in a discussion is the person that's talking is trying to get their point across everyone else in the discussion, whether you admit it or. You're not listening. You're thinking about what you're gonna say next to try to tell them why they're wrong. When you practice a dialogue, which is a very deliberate, very similar, but a dialogue is everyone in the room suspends every thought other than listening to the person and the goal of a discussion.

The output of a discussion is a decision. The output of a dialogue is understanding. Before you can make a decision, you have to understand, and so it's easy to say organizations like Amazon and others embrace conflict. They have to put a lot of processes and change management into place to get people to do it properly, to have dialogues.

If they just went into a room and everyone was shouting over each other, it wouldn't be productive conflict in that. It would be negative and it it would have negative issues. But if you can get people to see different perspectives and truly listen, you're gonna get answers to that puzzle of whatever you're trying to do, and it's gonna give you a better answer.

Host: Woo.

You have studied how the brain processes information, and I believe this plays a role in how one deals with conflict or manages conflict. Can you tell us more about that Kevin?

Kevin: Absolutely. The brain is the world's best super computer. But at the same time, it's somewhat flawed for today's world because we are exposed to so much information.

You think about all the senses, all the data coming in, millions every second. If the brain consciously processed all of that. It would overheat. You'd have to sleep like a hundred hours a day, which isn't possible. So what the brain does is it tries to use some shortcuts, called heuristics, to think about what's relevant to you. What's really challenging in today's time about that is what's relevant to you may not be the right thing, maybe because something has changed. So we live in a world where things change quickly. When I was in college, Cloud was a meteorology class. Now it's an IT course. So all of my previous experiences come back unconsciously when I'm making a decision. If those experiences are outdated or no longer relevant, they don't help us.

The other thing is when the brain doesn't find a connection, it tries to make one up, and that leads us to things like stereotyping and prejudice. Very unconscious, but we might not have the answer. Our colleague might have the answer, they might have a different experience, They might have a different view or perspective of things, and if we're not dialoguing and opening to listening to them, Which we won't be, if we're avoiding conflict, we'd never get their opinion.

So at the base level, it's really about just trying to get diverse perspectives and hopefully people have different ways of doing it. You don't want the company to have everyone that talks the same way and acts the same way and has the same background. We even see a lot in organizations now, you will intentionally bring in workers from completely different industries and some people say that does not make sense. Why bring that person into a software company, they have never worked in software. They're a hardware person.

It makes total sense cuz you want a different perspective.

Host: And you want a fresh perspective as well. Let's talk about dialogue, because you say one has to practice a dialogue.

How does one get started in doing that? Because this has to be done consistently and regularly, and then we get used to it whereby we listen to you without having to think about what we're going to say next. Suspend the thoughts. How do we go about that, Kevin?

Kevin: The good news is it's a skill. With a skill you can learn it. There are different modes of communication and I most of us spend years learning how to read and write. Well, the most used communication skill is listening, yet most of us have never taken a course in listening. So we're all starting from a point where we dont have the listening skill, which makes it hard. We can't just go in a room and say "Suspend all of your thoughts and just listen."

It is a deliberate practice of doing it in trial environments with nothing that you have a stake in the game. Because the problem is when you start doing it and you have a stake in the game, you get emotional. We get emotional when someone says something that goes counter to our beliefs.

So one of the biggest strategies is to try to take all of the emotion out. Easier said than done. Right? You can't do that overnight. So it is a lot of deliberate practice to get there, but organizations do it. And then you really have this exponential innovation and growth because everyone's practicing active listening.

Host: Active listening. You say, let's talk, let's take, um, a situation of a husband and wife. And they want to start practicing, to practice the dialogue. And here is the thing. They've been on this particular subject or particular matter and they already know each other's views. Then it pops in again and the wife is like, I already know what he is gonna say. And they cut in right there. How do you do active listening?

Kevin: In that situation, the first thing I would say is ideally you wanna have that dialogue at a point in time when the emotions are not too high, like when you're regulated, easier said than done.

But you know, there is a reason that when people say sleep on it, there's a science behind it. Because the more emotions you can take out of it, the more rational, the more open, the more dialogue you can have. So, knowing the tools and the practices, what I would do in that situation is I would say, I know you know what I'm gonna say, but you don't know why I'm gonna say it.

And to me, why is more important?

Host: There is a science, ladies and gentlemen, behind sleep on it.

Kevin: The other one is emotional intelligence. And when I think of emotional intelligence, it comes into two different parts. It is how aware I am of myself and how aware I am of others. The more I can increase my awareness of others, then it's all about reframing. I'm not telling anyone to go to your spouse and start with, I see you're emotional. That won't end well. It is more about recognizing and then figuring out why they're emotional? What can we do? Can we pause it now and have that impulse control to say this isn't gonna end well, let's talk about it tomorrow morning.

And with everything, you get better the more you do it, and the more trust there is. The more trust there is, the more collaboration there is, the better outcomes.

Host: What are some of the causes of this conflict?

Kevin: Well, the biggest one we're talking about here is that everyone in the world has different perspectives. And we talked about how the brain works. So I'll give you one example of how this works. Unconsciously is when I was growing up, one of my neighbors would always shoot BB guns at the house. It was a kid. And, and I always thinking and saying what a troublemaker he was. He had red hair. And without knowing it for years, subconsciously, I would see redheads and I'm thinking they are a troublemaker.

And so in my brain, in my long term memory, unconsciously, I have this association in the brain database, redhead, troublemaker. Long story short, I have four kids. The third one came out with like flaming red hair. He's the nicest person in the world. And it kind of was that gut check for me. Oh. I thought that, but you know what? Someone who lived in a different neighborhood would never have had that experience. They would never have had that perspective. They never would've thought that. So there's different ways where conflict helps.

In one way you're helping someone else. See a different perspective. In another way, they're helping you see a different perspective. So in this case, I don't know that I might be prejudices against the redhead, but listening to others talk in how they're acting. Let's say we're hiring someone and we have two finalists.

I don't wanna make a biased decision. I don't wanna go and make a decision because five years ago I had a negative experience with someone that had the same color hair. That's not rational. But we're not rational people, so it's just as much about getting their input as it is trying to share my input to them, with the goal of trying to avoid these kind of stereotypes stemming from a lack of different perspectives.

Now you take in different cultural norms, different geographies, how you do different greetings in North America versus Asia. They're all different perspectives. Everyone's right, but most people just aren't used to it. So I think one of the big takeaways I tell everyone is suspend belief and assumption and just assume positive intent.

So if someone said something to me that I thought was rude, there's probably a good chance I misunderstood it. If I understood their background and their culture, it would help. But we want the quick answer. We want the answer today. We want it right now. So it's tough to say, let me think about that and let me process, because it's not instant.

Host: Yeah. And we can even go and say What's there to think about? You already know what you're gonna say. What do you think are some of the biggest mistakes that leaders are making in conflict resolution Kevin?

Kevin: I think one of the biggest ones is about reframing and it's about compromise. So there are some situations where in a conflict you want to make it a win-win. You want to give a little, especially if it's something around a process or emotions or someone has a picture up in the office that people don't like. If you a hundred percent go on one side, you're gonna start alienating those other people and they'll be less likely to trust the group.

So in those types of situations, you want to try to make it a win-win if, if at all possible. Find the compromise where neither one gets everything they want. , but in a way you can do it in a way that they actually understand why. For example, there was a TV show where someone kept putting up pictures of cats and everyone was complaining and the boss decided to not allow the pictures to be kept up.

I would just want to know first why did this person want to have the cat pictures up. And why did the other person not want the cat picture up? And if both sides of the conflict knew all of those things, if they knew why, maybe they would be a little bit more flexible. And so it always goes back to assuming positive intent.

It is not a coincidence that as kids we ask why all the time? There's a reason, right? Because they wanna learn. And I feel like as we get older, we suppress the curiosity. And what that means is then we're open to more unhealthy conflict because we're not used to asking why. It's not comfortable for us.

Even in the workplace, there are some cultures where if you ask your boss why they think you're disrespectful. I think that's kind of the non-starter for leaders. They make the biggest mistake by not listening to the why's of why people are wanting to do something in the conflict.

Host: Yes.

And is it interesting that children love to ask why? Why are you wearing the dress? Why should I wear these pens? Why, why, why? And most of the time parents don't wanna respond to that. What would you have to say about that, Kevin?

Kevin: It's really fascinating. So one of my other passions is adult learning, like how adults learn and fundamentally how adults need to learn a new skill is different than a kid.

And it actually goes back to the question why. With a kid, they dont have many previous experiences, so the brain's memory is pretty empty. As we mentioned before, like the brain tries to make connections. Well with kids, there are very few connections to go back to.

They're kids. So them asking why is their thirst for understanding to build that into their brain. Now you fast forward to an adult, they have all those experiences, so we're not asking why, because we think we know the answer. But what's fascinating is many times we don't have the answer. We have our perspective of the answer, which is often times completely wrong.

Like the example with, with the redhead, redheads are not troublemakers, but my brain had that previous experience, so it didn't go any farther than that unless I consciously checked it.

It's why kids thirst for knowledge, as they are on empty. We need to fill them up. That's draining as a parent. But if you don't do that, then they don't get their questions answered. They don't stay being curious. And the worst thing about not being curious as an adult is you, you don't learn new things.

You don't change your perspective when it's wrong. You just kind of stick with your stereotypes and prejudice, which is not good for anyone.

Host: Hmm. We're at the tail end. You are tilting balls. You say there's a science behind decision making. Now we know that there's some of us that are very indecisive.

I mean, some people can't decide, and this is one of those things that affect relationships even in the workplace. You go back to your boss, say, Have you decided on this? Not yet. Two weeks later, they are. To decide. Tell us about that sign. Does it have to do with the brain? What is it and how does one overcome and use it to their best?

Kevin: It does. I'll answer it two different ways. So to your point, there's a science but there are some people who just innately are risk adverse and they don't want to take chances. It's a bias that they have. So sometimes people are indecisive because their brain is trying to tell them, no, no, no, don't change.

Just keep status quo. Just keep doing the same thing. I don't wanna cause any risk. I'm happy I'm in my bubble. Don't break it. And that's really hard because it's unconscious. They don't know it, but they're just saying, I don't want to make the decision because I don't wanna leave my comfort zone.

And so there's ways you can kind of remedy that. But the other situation you run into is where people just are indecisive, I would say more than half of the time it's because they don't truly understand the question. Let's say your boss comes to you and says, I need you to tell me how was our marketing campaign last year or last week? How successful was it?

That's not a good question. Compared to what, what timeframe? What's the benchmark? Is it across different channels like email vs print advertisements. So a lot of times, you don't know what the question is, and so you're indecisive because of it. If you don't know what the question is, you don't know how to answer it.

Host: Would you say some people are natural risk takers because they're those who don't mind and they always take crazy decisions and they end up being correct in whatever they've taken. Is that, does that come natural or it comes with practice?

Kevin: Yeah, it's a good question. I mean, everyone does have different personalities, right? There are sometimes there are more of the thinkers that want to do the data analysis and, get out there. There are some that just want to use the intuition. What I would say is just because someone jumped forward and said, I'm gonna make this decision quickly, and it turns out it was a positive decision, it doesn't mean it was the right decision. They might have been lucky.

What I mean by that is when people make these decisions quickly, it all goes back to the brain. What the brain is doing unconsciously is it's looking back in its database and saying, Okay, we had 16 situations in which something similar happened in 14 of these, this was the outcome and it was positive.

So my gut is telling me, let's do it. It's actually their brain giving them the decision. But the challenge is this may have been fine thousands of years ago as things did not change as often. Now things change daily or weekly. So your brain is telling you to do something, you have to check it to make sure things have not changed.

I would encourage people to, even if they're those risk takers that like to make quick decisions, and they've been pretty lucky in the past, they still should check. Why are they saying that? Because that'll cause them to consciously think. Why am I thinking that we should do this?

Host: So who do you listen to in those situations?

Kevin: It's all about balance. My brain, my gut is telling me I should go on a vacation next week. Okay. Well balance it. Like what are the pros and cons? I think that's why the decision is so hard for people. You have the data side of things and you have to understand how to interpret the data. You have the experience and perspective's too. Well, my gut's telling me this. And you have to balance those and to balance them it is hard.

Most people just want this quick fix. So what I try to do is I try to come up with the brain, gives me a hypothesis, here's what I think, and then I try to disprove. With data or evidence or information. Then if I can't disprove it, I stay with hypothesis. What I don't do is get the brain to say, Okay, let's do this, and then never check it.

Because more often than not it's, it's wrong or not ideal.

Host: If you could give one bit of advice to a reader or a professional listening now, what will that be?

Kevin: I'll give two, two quick pieces. The first one is what we talk about. Ask Why. It's a forgotten art. We learn as kids and we forget it.

Number two is when you're making decisions. Asking why is for when you're receiving information. When you're making decisions and sharing them out, show you work. What I mean by that is list out all of your assumptions. Explain why you came up with this scenario, because what that's gonna do is show your thought process.

Just like when we're kids and we do our math homework, we can't just give the answer. We have to write out the entire thought process so a teacher can correct where the process failed. If we just give an answer and a decision and we don't show our thought process, we're gonna make tons of assumptions that aren't accurate and no one's gonna be able to healthy conflict.

Host: We're out of time and I'm, I'm just thinking the show comes to an end now, but this conversation does not need to end. We can continue with this conversation. How can our listeners find out more about you and more about what you do.

Do you have books? Do you have courses? Is there something you have done that could really assist our listeners in taking this journey further? And the conversation, Kevin?

Kevin: Absolutely. I have written a book recently around this topic. It's called Turning Data into Wisdom, and it's, it's around decision making.

It does touch upon things like dialogue versus discussion and conflict in the workplace, but it goes back to the psychology and a lot of how the brain works and how to overcome bias and, and how to active listening. You can find it on Amazon or any book store website, but if you wanna learn more about that or anything else I do, just you can go to my website:

It has links to the book, links to my LinkedIn profile. Feel free to connect with me there, ask questions.

Host: Thank you Kevin, for your time and for the wealth of knowledge you have brought.

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