Stay in the Problem: Creative Conflict Strategies

Updated: Feb 18, 2019


Photo by Alice Achterhof on Unsplash

Humans loathe uncertainty. We like patterns, routines and structure. We like knowing what’s going to happen next.


Even creative pursuits, like jazz or abstract painting, that seem to thrive on a lack of structure are really made interesting because they bend expected structural expectations. In the enjoyment, there's still a strong relationship to the expectation of order and the underlying classical “rules” of the art form.


When the mind encounters disorder of any kind, it immediately attempts to organize the data and produce a structure that will give the mess meaning, make it intelligible, categorizable and controllable.

A Pollock painting or a Coltrane riff is interesting because your mind attempts to draw meaning and impose order on something spontaneous, loosely structured or even chaotic.


But if an artist moves too far away from established expectations and rules, the work risks becoming meaningless. Music becomes noise. Art becomes trash. Or better yet, trash becomes art!


The same process is at work in conflict. When we encounter a relational mess, we are hardwired to feel uncomfortable.


Like the person staring at a Pollock painting, when we encounter relational conflict, we know things are not in their right place. We sense the disorder and fear it.

If only subconsciously, we fear that the relational glue that holds us together will dissolve and leave us alone and unconnected – a very primal fear.


However, our emotions drive us to impose order when faced with conflict. We are literally compelled by our hardwiring to set things right and resolve tension in relationships.


In workplace conflict, the real danger is not that our relationships will completely fall apart. That is actually quite rare. The real danger is that, in response to the emotional tension surrounding conflict, we resolve things too soon.
Instead, teams must learn how to stay in the problem.

The great Ralph Katz, professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, refers to this uncomfortable experience as “the problem space”. Most bad decisions (sayeth Ralph), whether technical or relational, arise from a team’s inability to stay in the problem space.


In short, teams respond too quickly to the emotional tension and begin taking action far too soon.


You can help your team stay in the problem by:

  • Providing permission to NOT fix things (i.e., not too fast)

  • Removing obstacles to participation in the conversation (e.g., carve out time; give people permission to make this a priority; let other tasks slide if needed)

  • Helping them frame the right questions, not the right answers (e.g., measure success by the quality and completeness of the engagement, not by how fast things are “fixed” or even the particular outcomes)

To lead conflict effectively, avoid moving to actions and resolution, until:

  • The conversation includes those closest to the problem

  • There is a shared understanding and definition of the problem itself

  • All potential options for action are understood and digested by the group

Leading conflict creatively requires to you generate uncertainty by surfacing tensions, and then to manage that uncertainty by using these guidelines to help your team stay in the problem until they are really ready to act.


Until then, learn to love the mess.


Check out the Leading Conflict store for practical and hard-hitting resources that will help you put these ideas into action.


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