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Conflict Management and Power Struggles

Samantha Milat
Good evening everybody and welcome to this evenings Suddenly I'm a leader webinar. Tonight we will be focusing on conflict management and power struggles.
Our presenter, as with our previous webinars, will be Vicky Moriarty and Vicky runs the RACGP Future Leaders alumni and mentoring programs.
Thank you for joining us again Vicky and thank you to those attendees who are joining us for the first webinar and also if you've joined us for previous one, so I'll hand over to you, Vicky, to kick us off.
Wonderful. Thank you, Samantha.
So, before I get started, I would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which are you're all joining us tonight, and I am.
On what Whadjuk Noongar country in Perth and I wish to pay my respects to the elders past and present.
So tonight's topic is a very hot topic. It tends to be fairly popular in terms of discussions amongst leaders and how best to tackle conflict and regardless of what role you occupy in the workplace, this can bring about a lot of grief, so it is an important one to get to grips with.
So the way in which we are going to move through tonight is we're going to look at recognizing precursors for conflict in the workplace, being aware of effective techniques for managing conflict and applying methods for navigating power struggles. And then it'll just be a list of Q&A and resources at the end as well.
So do feel free to pop any questions that you have in the chat box and Samantha will help us with those as we go through.
So what leads to low trust between people and within organisations so low trust is a critical element in conflict and I'd like you to think about this for a moment and just pop some thoughts in the chat box possibly related to your own experiences: what were the things that drove low trust? Have you experienced it? What did it feel like?  And what do you think is a priority for the future?
And Samantha, I'm just going to ask you if those come through, if you don't mind, just to read out anything that comes through.
Samantha Milat
Certainly, will do when responses start coming in.
New person.
Lack of transparency.
Lack of communication or poor communication.
Repeated mistakes, different agendas.
Repeated situations of work not being done as expected and repeated failure to meet deadlines, misunderstandings.
So significant elements that occur within the workplace that can lead to low trust.
So, there are four key things I had on my list so lack of transparency was already mentioned, lack of communication or poor communication, lack of visibility if, as a leader you're not visible to your team, this can create low trust as well, and particularly in this kind of environment where you're primarily driven by zoom or other technology, this is really, really important to make sure that you connect in a way that bridges that social engagement barrier and build those relationships and then the fourth is that lack of consistency, which was mentioned in behaviours and decision making.
So where people vacillate in terms of their approach to things and people are unable to anticipate how someone will respond when you're looking to a leader for direction, that can be a significant driver of low trust.
Making responsible ethical decisions along the way, especially in terms of relationships and that psychological contract that exists within the workplace, is also really really important.
So thank you for those, now in terms of conflict. Conflict avoidance is actually a key element of dealing with conflict management and it depends on the scale of conflict, so people need to be safe, psychologically safe in the workplace, that's a fundamental aspect of working and one of the trickier aspects of conflict avoidance is the use of passive aggressive behaviours as opposed to overly aggressive behaviours.
And passive aggressive behaviours can include things like leaving notes, rather than having a direct conversation and not being consistent in how you share your messages with people, so you might say one thing to another person and another thing to another, so that consistency is really, really important as a leader.
And where there is a tendency towards aggression, this is as opposed to passive aggression, this is where people will naturally, start to avoid having the conversations in in first place, which will trigger a problem in terms of low trust.
So what you want to be doing is looking at what are the behaviours that exist in the workplace, and there are lots of different tools that you can use to analyse that.
And if you know that you have a challenge in terms of workplace culture, or issues in the practice, this is where you need to be looking at first of all.
Another element in terms of conflict is when emotions run high so when we have an emotional response to something we will we risk acting on the emotion, as opposed to a decision that is possibly removed from the emotion and then more robust.
So the question that often occurs in these sorts of discussions is, can you be emotional in the workplace, this is a particularly tricky area that comes up for women leaders. It's an accusation that can be levelled at women significantly.
And one of the things to consider is that we are all still human therefore having an emotional reaction to something depends on how you have that reaction - obviously screaming and yelling is not a great way to go.
However, if you are affected by something, and you state your emotion and then you ask to withdraw from the situation and then come back and have a conversation later then it's much easier to manage for both parties.
People shouldn't feel guilty for having emotions. They are a natural part of being human. So yes, you can have emotions in the workplace and one of the key elements for you as leaders is getting comfortable with discomfort, if that is your reaction to other people's emotions, because what will happen is if people know that you are willing to understand and hear them out, then that will augment the level of trust that is in your workplace as well.
So what is a safe workplace? A safe workplace is where people know that they can bring a matter to you, and that it will be dealt with consistently.
And that they will be told how it will be handled, and it needs to be done within a reasonable timeframe.
Just sitting on it and hoping it will go away, is another contributor to conflict so you want to be responding quickly when issues have been brought up.
Obviously that's challenging when you're seeing patients and working in the practice day to day, but you may have responsibilities as a medical director, for example, or as principal in the practice.
Yes, it's challenging to keep on top of those so, where possible, you want to work alongside your practice manager to help you make sure that those things are in place.
Discouragement is another driver of conflict, so what that means is, are you always saying no? Is that your default position whenever someone brings an idea to you?
And if it is then people are unlikely to feel that they aren't able to make a contribution in the workplace and we know that people by and large, want to be able to do that, they want to be able to make a difference day to day.
What that difference consists of obviously varies from person to person, but having the opportunity to put something forward without always hearing know is really important.
And failing to acknowledge the other person's viewpoint, so always shutting people down, is another method of discouragement just because you don't want to hear it doesn't mean it shouldn’t be said.
And so it's important again as a leader to be willing to have to sit and be present in the conversation and simply hear out what the other person has to say.
And to do so without restating back to them a different version of what you've heard. So checking, say “I think this is what I've heard, can you confirm for me this is what I've heard?”
So that you're always acknowledging, step by step, throughout the conversation as to what it is that the other person is experiencing, because one of the things around messaging is that what is in your mind as a message, what comes out of your mouth is a message, what’s heard by the other person and the interpretation that they apply to it, can be radically different from those two points, and so you want to be checking in regularly with that person throughout the conversation, where there is conflict or higher emotion.
And, obviously, if there is high emotion, give them the opportunity to withdraw and come back later. It's a good idea to allow someone a break, just to catch their breath and be able to come back with a fresh state of mind, that's not unreasonable at all.
Another contributor to conflict is over-focus on task so if you're not looking at what's going on around you, you may miss something critical.
If you're very, very goal oriented, there is a risk that you could neglect the relationships around you and how they're positioned, how you're positioned in the context of the other people that you're working with, and that pursuit of the goal can damage those relationships so something to really, really consider.
Lack of structure. So what does lack of structure feel like in an organisation? This is a question for you. Have you worked in an organisation where things have been disorganised and what did that feel like? If you can put your answers in the chat box again, that would be great and just give Samantha a little bit of time to think about that.
So, lack of structure.
Samantha Milat
Toxic, uncertainty, frustrated
Frustrated again, inconsistency
Trapped, loss of purpose, stressful
Lack of experience
Basic processes misunderstood
Meaningless days
Lack of vision
Loss of leadership
Yes, some really significant effects as a consequence of a lack of structure, so the lack of structure feeds into that uncertainty, the inconsistency in terms of behaviours and decision making, because you may not know who's the decision maker in specific circumstances.
Obviously, you will have, in terms of within the practice, your accreditation requirements, and the manuals you work to and everything else, but in around that, any lack of structure in terms of decision making will contribute to conflict significantly and it opens you up to that.
And so what you want to do is remove that degree of unpredictability by making sure that people know who it is they go to for key issues, for example, if it's something to do with their employment.
And that that person will listen to them and won't shut them down, will actually take on board what it is that they're going to say. What you do in that situation is you prevent toxicity arising in the workplace and it's really important as well not to do any, what's referred to by Brene Brown as ‘back channelling’ so that the conversation is had and then there is another conversation in the background that somehow denigrates the person who's come with the questions.
So yes, maintaining our structure, consistency and, especially in terms of behaviours and decision making is really, really important. Was there something else in the chat there that I saw, Samantha?
Samantha Milat
I think someone's just having issues with the sound.
Okay, so let's talk about effective techniques for managing conflict so first of all there's your own response as the leader. So note your physiological response and you might want to consider journalling for this, because what you can do is, if you're experiencing a conflict situation at work, journalling allows you to get the emotions out on the page, write it out.
And I do recommend writing, as opposed to typing, although obviously  typing is fine and sometimes you might want to do that on your phone, for example, if it's useful.
But, being aware of what your own physiological response means that you can then consider what are the things that you need to be in place and that you need to put in place for yourself in order to help you manage and conflict better.
One of the key elements of this is remembering to breathe. It's one of the most fundamental recommendations that is given in every single conflict resolution programs.
And it's very, very important so avoiding that pressure in the chest, as a consequence of holding your breath, (you may not be aware that you're doing it) allows you gives you time to think because you're bringing down your heart rate and you're actually engaging better with the other person as a consequence of focusing on your breath and understanding what is happening to you.
So, avoid assumptions is the next critical part. Don't assume that the decision making of the other person is the same as your own decision making process, because invariably isn't unless you know them really well invariably it won't be.
So avoid telling a story about what it is that the other person is doing, or what their intentions are to ask open questions about what their intentions are what they need in order to be able to deescalate the situation and adopt a curious approach, so the opposite to shutting someone down is a curious approach. ‘I'm curious when you say that you're having difficulties. How are you experiencing that? What is happening for you?” and helping them move forward through the conversation, so that they can also see you're managing your own physical physiological response and then you deescalate by listening and helping them to move forward in the conversation.
Understand your own triggers. This is a critical area so know which topics are sort of push buttons for you in terms of whether it's a strong response to a situation in terms of anger or yelling whatever it is, or withdraw response so there's a moving towards and a moving away response and, obviously, then there's also the freeze response too that can occur.
So understand what drives you into each of those situations and by doing that you become more skilled at understanding what is occurring in the moment and how you can apply strategies in the moment.
And you also fundamentally need to develop your own emotional intelligence in terms of your self-awareness, so this is where asking you to understand your own triggers is building your self-awareness and then observing what is happening with other people.
It's challenging when you've got the sort of work day where you're working from between six and 15 minutes with patients or longer have to do, mental health plan, for example, and your time is very, very limited so acknowledging that, but understanding your own triggers as you go through the day really important.
So, in terms of methods for navigating power struggles first seek to understand the other party: so don't jump in and cut them off.
If they're escalating to the point where they are being unreasonable, ask them to have a conversation in another room if you're not locked down like we are, or ask them if you'd like to come back later and have that conversation.
It's not unreasonable to do that and just say, “I can see or I'm sensing or I'm hearing that you're struggling at the moment. Why don't we come back and have a conversation later about it? Go and get a glass of water or a cup of tea and then bring them back to the conversation when they've had a chance to calm down.
Again understanding your own triggers and testing yourself.
One of the things that, when we do conflict resolution workshops and we look at different scenarios and role play, and everyone wants to be able to know how to respond in any given moment.  Unfortunately, the only way to actually be able to do that is to test yourself in role play scenarios, but the reality is how we respond physiologically to someone else's emotions, we can't always guarantee it's going to occur in role play.
So test yourself along the way, and forgive yourself if you don't get it right, but if you don't get it right, revisit it in a way that allows you to learn from that.
If you know that you are going into a conversation which is conflict oriented prepare for it. Structure the conversation and particularly have note of questions that you can run through as you go through, and you need to be able to tailor your approach the person that you're talking to.
So, if you're driving for a specific outcome and they're driving for another outcome entirely, there is a higher risk of conflict there. If you're more open to the conversation and understanding what is their position, then you are able to move forward in the best way.
If you are not the person in power, as it were, so from power perspective either your equal or one of you might be in a position of power as is in you report to that person or they report to you. Where they report to you, you are in a position of power.
Of course, there are certain behaviours that can undermine that such as bullying, which makes it much more difficult, where there is bullying occurring, then you need to be able to say that out loud. State it as this is what I'm experiencing and I'm asking you to behave in a way that is not bullying.
So, one of the things to bear in mind from a power struggle perspective is the adoption of different methods of leadership so command and control, rather than values-driven leadership can lead to lower trust. Command and control is more suited to emergency situations where you're giving direct instructions and it is expected for those instructions will be followed.
Obviously, there are certain situations in which that’s advisable and it's sensible. Values-driven leadership is about understanding the other person first, and working with them to get to the outcome that's required and adapting your position as you learn and understand where it is that they want to get to.
So rather than focusing on the outcome, allowing the outcome to emerge is a much more effective method in a power struggle. You're giving time for the relationship to strengthen, understanding to be built, and it may surprise you what it is that the other person is actually after or what the driver is in terms of the conflict.
And lastly, use the scarf model, so this is a model that was developed by David Rock and this focuses on how you can generate the reward response, what behaviours you can adopt in order to have the conversation move towards somebody in the right way, as opposed to them reacting to what you're saying as a threat response and moving away or into conflict.
So the five elements of SCARF are status: so understand and help the other person feel respected so that their status is being maintained.
Where there's certainty where they understand what it is that is unfolding, and they can anticipate it, they are more likely to move towards a reward response in the conversation.
Autonomy, so allowing them to have a degree of decision making is really, really important to take decision making away if you're constantly saying no and then you'll de-autonomising that person.
Relatedness, so building that sense of connection to the other person and understanding and also fairness. So is what's being agreed to, or suggested fair. If there is a sense of unfairness or injustice that is likely to lead to conflict.
So we have some resources here which are useful in terms of having crucial conversations. This book is good, Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High (by Al Switzler, Joseph Grenny and Ron McMillan) is a good one.
Primal leadership by Daniel Goldman, this is in terms of emotional intelligence, is very useful as well, and I would also recommend having a debrief buddy, so this is where you have someone usually appear, or someone that you work with where you're not necessarily looking to just dump on them. What you're doing is talking about the response that you have had to a situation, what you've observed and evaluating ways forward and using them as a sounding board.
So it shouldn't be about speculating about what the other person's doing or gossiping it should be focused on this was my response, and this is the information I have about the situation, what might I not know in evaluating ways forward.
And that's it for today so, do you have any questions for me?
Samantha Milat
I've got one question here, Vicky, that I will raise while we're waiting for some others to come through. Can you talk a bit about what leads to low trust between people within organisations?
So, in terms of those four elements: lack of transparency, lack of visibility, poor communication and inconsistent behaviours. Inconsistent behaviours is one of the biggest triggers of low trust so. So if you are experiencing those in the workplace, you are not likely to trust management and as a consequence of that, as a leader, you need to be focusing on how you share information when you share it which channels you use are you doing email and talking to people face to face, for example, and building up trust.
Samantha Milat
Great, people, hopefully, are typing away. We've got another one here, what does the lack of structure feel like in the workplace?
So the lack of structure is what we mentioned as well before in terms of the not knowing where to go, the chaos. So these are some of the points that were putting in the chat the chaos, the unpredictability.
And so it can feel very unsettling and unsafe and where there is that lack of structure.
That's a real risk in terms of leadership, if you're not able to assure the safety, psychological safety, of your staff.
And that's something that that can give rise to significant concerns later on, so what you want to do is build those relationships and connect with your staff and understand what their values are and how best to help them achieve the outcomes that they're looking for going forward, whilst also working to deliver what it is that you need in workplace as well.
Samantha Milat
We've had another one come through: how to find common ground when dealing with a corporate company or it or a CEO?
Okay, so that's a really interesting one.
With that there's a model that you can use in terms of influencing it's called influencing without power. I can share that with you, Samantha, to share after afterwards.
So what you're doing is going into that conversation assuming that everyone is an ally, that is, the critical first step, we tend to go into conversations expecting conflict.
In situations like that, where someone has power, so working with a corporate or CEO you know that they have power, and you can be fearful going into the interaction.
If you take that first step of assuming that they are an ally and looking at what it is that you're both trying to achieve.
That is a much better starting point, because what you’re doing is then allowing the conversation to unfold, where you understand what is it that they're trying to get to, what is it that you're trying to get to, what as referred to in this model are shared currencies, so what can you trade between the two of you, and in order to do that what needs to happen along the way, so I'm really happy to share that back with you, Samantha, in terms of an additional resource because there's obviously more to it than that.
But that's a useful one in that situation where you're looking to negotiate with a CEO or corporate.
Samantha Milat
We're just about to hit 730 but there's one more here that I'll raise and we weren't able to get to all of them, as my apologies, in advance, but how do you build accountability into culture without conflating it with blame?
That's a really interesting one.
Where you have accountability, you are holding someone responsible for the actions that they take and you explain to them if they don't meet the requirements, what the consequences are.
And you do it in a way that is compassionate and, I want to say conciliatory, but that's not quite right, what you're doing is you're saying you will probably get a lot of information back and acknowledging that information that you get and acknowledging the other person's point of view but being consistent about what the outcome is if they don't do something.
Where blame comes in, is where there is fear and/or a lack of trust and that's obviously can be very serious situation to manage, but you don't want finger pointing to occur so retaliatory actions for example being responding so rapidly that you haven't taken on board the other person's point of view and given them the opportunity to share what it is that’s occurred, not jumping to assumptions or conclusions about what has taken place.
Samantha Milat
That's great, thanks so much, Vicky and that does bring us across to 7:31, so I will wrap us up there and apologies to those that we didn't get to your questions.
I'd like to thank everybody for joining us, and I would like to again thank Vicky. For those of you that are interested, our next Suddenly I'm a Leader webinar will be on the second of March and the topic will be creating champions of change and I have just posted the registration link for that one in the chat box for you and in our email we send around tomorrow I’ll include that link, along with the additional information that Vicky outlined at the end here in regards to those questions. So thanks very much everybody and enjoy the rest of your evening.

Other RACGP online events

Originally recorded:

2 February 2021

Do you struggle with conflict mangement or power struggles in your practice or workplace? Join us for the fourth instalment in the ´Suddenly I’m a leader’ series.

The activity will focus on:
- Recognising precursors for conflict in the workplace
- Being aware of effective techniques for managing conflict
- Applying methods for navigating power struggles.

Learning outcomes

  1. Recognise precursors for conflict in the workplace
  2. Be aware of effective techniques for managing conflict
  3. Apply methods for navigating power struggles
This event attracts 1 CPD points

This event attracts 1 CPD points


Vicky Moriarty

Vicky Moriarty runs the RACGP’s Future Leaders, Alumni and Mentoring Programs. After studying Human Resources and Business Management in French, she worked principally as an HR professional and software trainer in Europe. Since moving to Australia in 2006, she has worked solely in healthcare and community services in the following roles: HR Manager for IPN in 2008, with responsibility for recruitment and placement of overseas trained doctors in rural and remote locations for both general practice and occupational health; then with her own HR Consultancy, during which time she advised and helped set up a number of independent general practices in Western Australia; finally, as a Senior HR Business Partner managing a national team remotely before joining the RACGP more than 5 years ago. Vicky lectures on leadership and was invited to speak at the UK’s Leaders in Healthcare Conference 2018, run jointly by the British Medical Journal and the Faculty of Medical Leadership and Management, on the action learning methodology used in the Future Leaders program.


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