Thursday, May 8, 2014

Expert Interview with Craig Runde: How to Handle Conflict in the Workplace

Change is inevitable. When change is poorly managed it breeds conflict in both teams and individuals. We spoke with Craig Runde, an expert in conflict management in the workplace, to better understand the unique relationship between conflict and change.

Craig Runde is the Director of the Center for Conflict Dynamics at Eckerd College where he oversees training on the Conflict Dynamics Profile (CDP) assessment. He graduated from Harvard University, earned his law degree from Duke University, and holds a library science degree from the University of Denver. Craig took a moment to speak with me about the CDP and talk about how you can handle conflict in the workplace.

Lindsey Sprague: Can you tell us a little about the CDP assessment?

Craig Runde: The Conflict Dynamics Profile assessment looks at how people respond to workplace conflict. It measures behavior patterns they use typically. Faced with conflict in the workplace it also measures triggers or behaviors in others that would upset them, we call those “hot buttons.” And when you’re upset as the result of somebody else’s actions you become more prone to defaulting into ineffective, destructive types of behavioral responses. The model underlying the CDP suggests that conflict is inevitable, how you behave has a great deal to do with what you get out of the conflict, some behaviors are constructive and tend to result in better outcomes, some are destructive and tend to escalate or prolong the conflict.

Lindsey Sprague: How would you say that one’s awareness of their own approach to conflict affects their ability to lead a team?

Craig Runde: First of all, conflict is inevitable and pretty much anyone you talk to on any team will agree to that. Yet, when we ask people on teams whether they have a plan for dealing with conflict, the answer is almost always no. Therefore, they wind up defaulting to their auto-pilot type of responses to conflict and generally that means that people are operating in a reactive mode, because most people have never learned how to deal with conflict well. We as human beings are built to respond to conflict but it’s typically life threatening conflict and our fight or flight instincts work quite well in those kinds of cases. The problem is that the same instincts arise when we sense differences with someone else that are not of a life threatening nature. As a consequence, the type of reactions that are built in for survival are what we typically depend on and those fight or flight type of  responses don’t work well in the context of modern life. To be able to get angry and lash out at the other person (fight) or drawing back and avoiding the other person (flight) just don’t work well when you’re in situations where the conflict involves interdependent people who are going to need to continue to work. So if you’re not aware of how you’re responding, typically these are the ways that people respond. And if you just go on doing it, it’s almost guaranteed that you’ll get bad outcomes.

You know, when you go through an interaction with people and you ask them whether or not they believe conflict is inevitable, almost everyone says, “Yeah, it’s inevitable.” When you ask them to think about words to describe it, generally they come up with negative words. And when you asked them, "How do you usually deal with it?" the dominant answer is, “I avoid it.” Then you come back to them and say, “You have this inevitable thing that you see as negative, and you avoid it, how well does that work?” and they laugh! Because it doesn’t work, and they know it doesn’t work. So the question becomes, "What are you going to do with this inevitable thing?" Because you’re going to have it. Our idea is that you might as well try to find ways to get something more positive out of this because if you ask people, “Have you ever in your life had a positive outcome from a conflict?” they almost always say yes. You ask them what happened in those cases, and usually they will describe either better outcomes or improved relationships. They will talk about, in effect, the way they got there was by using some of the constructive behaviors that are measured in the CDP.

Lindsey Sprague: Have you observed any correlation between a person’s approach to conflict and their approach to change?

Craig Runde: That’s an interesting question, because we’ve certainly used the Change Style Indicator. I would say that in some respects, some aspects of conflict resolution are easier for people who would be more on the originator side, and that’s because they’re a little more comfortable with change. Certainly they can come up with new ideas and so forth. For people more on the conserver side, change is a little more challenging for them. They don’t like to do it for change’s sake, that’s fine, but sometimes they don’t even want to do it when it probably needs to be done. And I think a lot of time conflict arises around change. As a consequence our suggestion for people who are more on the Originator side of things, is to really take the time to try to understand where the other person is coming from not only factually but emotionally. Because change is scary and it’s important to understand why that’s happening and how that will affect them. 

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