Not all conflicts are created equal
In 2018 I wrote an article on conflict management which was meant to be the start of a series. It went no further. This month I’m going to resurrect the subject and continue with the series. This is the second part to the 2018 article and in this article we are going to talk about the basics of conflict
When we mention the word conflict it usually conjures up images of aggression, violence or other physical acts of harm. To do so really doesn’t do the topic or the subject any justice. There are many forms of conflict that we engage in and interpersonal (between 2 people) is only one. In this article I want to look at the different types of conflict we engage in and how they all interconnect. I also want to take a look at how these forms may be identified and leveraged by the security professional. This article is an introduction to one of the the concepts which will be discussed on our upcoming webinar.
Disclaimer of sorts
What I write about here and in the following articles in this series is probably not exactly what many academics of philosophers would have written. Although I spend time a lot of time studying research reading content in these subjects I try to adapt what I learn to the real world situations that I find and have found myself in. If I can’t make it work then I don’t discard it. It may still be useful later in a different way. Also just because ‘I’ cant get something to work for me doesn’t mean that it can’t work for many others. My limitations are not yours.
What is conflict ?
Conflict is commonly described as “A miscommunication between two parties in which one of the parties perceives a threat to their safety, identity, needs or beliefs.” That’s a really broad definition that includes a whole lot more than just two people engaging in an argument. I don’t agree totally with the definition and would probably add a couple of words to it but it covers the subject generally. The critical word in there is ‘perceives’ . For me conflict is all about perception. How we perceive the situation , other people, and the world in general. As security practitioners we must be acutely aware of this. Our reality is not the reality of others. Our beliefs, our values and our concept of a threat is not the same as anybody else. We also have to remember that reality is and perception are shaped by influence. How a person is influenced by the world and by us or our organisation can lead to or prevent conflict. So to get to the root of conflict (whether external or internal ) we must get to the root of what is influencing the conflict. That’s our starting point.
Not all conflict is bad
This a key point. Conflict can be a very positive thing. It can also be a tool leveraged by security professionals to gain advantage or resource. It can motivate, deter and detect a multitude of problems. The example of two security professionals having a heated discussion about the best way to achieve a safe outcome on a task. Both with the best interest of each other and the team at heart but a conflict nonetheless. It can produce an outcome that exceeds either individuals ability on their own. Conflict can clear the air, identify root causes and make us an all round better team. In fact I would say that in my experience healthy conflict among teams can lead to high performance and a high level of accountability within the team. Conflict within a person themselves to ensure that even when they are tired and miserable they hold themselves accountable and within a group the positive conflict holds each other to account for standards and for errors. Finally, as manager and as leaders we have to recognise that there is a place for positive conflict in mentoring, coaching and maintaining standards as well as mediating among a team.
Conflict can be bad though when it turns negative, non constructive and personal. It becomes influenced by negative feelings and emotions and a person or groups perception changes to a harmful or self appreciating outlook.
Types of conflict
Again I might butcher the classical psychology definitions here but what I will do is combine some of the commonly used categories and introduce a little of my own experience into these types of conflict. Of course conflict doesn’t exist in a vacuum and some of these conflict types are intertwined in that one type can manifest or evolve into another if not managed. In fact that is commonly the case. Here we will look at them in isolation first.
This is the meat and bones of society’s perception on what conflict should look like. Disagreement between two people or parties potentially escalation towards hostility, aggression or even violence (again a misused word). This is what we prepare for and it’s what our primal brain fears. Fight and flight responses developed over generations safeguard us from harm and many billions of euros, pounds and dollars have been generated by those (including me) teaching physical skills for this arena. It’s also very much over hyped as a root cause of conflict. In my experience this type of conflict is often a manifestation of unmanaged levels of other types of conflict.
For me this is the most overlooked and most common root cause conflict type. Intrapersonal conflict is the internal conflict within a person. The mental decision making, the stress management and the resilience. How a person is influenced. How their values and beliefs are manifest. Poorly managed internal conflict often leads to poorly managed external conflict. Poorly managed internal conflict often results in what I call secondary conflict (more on that in a later blog post). How we manage ourselves, our mindset, our values and our resilience has a great bearing on how we manage external conflicts such as interpersonal issues. What decisions we make when we are tired and stressed, how we view people based on our value system, our biases and our stereotypes all stem from here.
This type of conflict is also often seen as a root cause with many external conflicts. Intragroup or intrarole conflicts exist within teams. It comes from heightened tensions. jealousy, egos and unhealthy competition. It can also be caused by personality clashes or even bullying. Examples from the security industry can include tempers fraying with customers because of tensions among a team or distrust of each other leading to cliques forming and outwards arguments with third parties. I’ve seen it escalate many use of force situations where for example one security team member in a high conflict situations with a customer doesn’t trust or believe in his/her colleague to support them so they increase the hostility and/or force used on the customer as they don’t feel they can rely on their support. I’ve also seen security staff take aggression out on members of the public because they felt they lost face in front of the team or use unreasonable force to prove their prowess to the team. All of the above are poorly managed egos and conflict within a team leading to increased interpersonal conflicts.
The final type of conflict to discuss is intergroup or interrole conflict occurs between roles or groups. Competing priorities needs and values lead to conflict among groups who should have similar goals and values. These conflicts have existed for as long as the security industry has. The classic balancing act between security and convenience within organisations is the most example. We all want the company to be successful but security teams priority is safety and the service teams priority is convenience and there are often clashes resulting. The us against them mindset very quickly emerges and hostility can ensue. Over time the hostility becomes normalized and both sides actively take steps to provoke conflict with the other leading to individual bouts of interpersonal conflict. This type of conflict can even emerge between the security professional and their client over similar issues.
Interpersonal conflicts can also expand into interole or intergroup conflicts. Consider the amount of underlying conflicts (sometimes healthy and sometimes not) that exist between security providers and teams. Healthy when its competitive and positive, unhealthy when its personal and malicious. These often find their root cause in value or personality differences between individual CEO’s or senior managers and expand to group conflicts.
The security professionals perspective
As security professionals we accept that conflict will happen. Its normal and healthy in any role. When it becomes personal or malicious though we call upon our skill set to manage it. To manage it though we have to really understand it. My experience of the industry is that we tend to focus much of our training and practice on managing interpersonal conflicts and within that the subsection of high risk (aggression or violence) interpersonal conflict. Managing at an interpersonal level when the root cause is something else will be difficult. If we can identify the root case we can often manage it at the correct level.
We also must recognise that we have a responsibility to ourselves to manage our own intrapersonal conflicts in order to be truly effective at managing external conflict. We owe it to ourselves and others to spend as much time training and honing our skills and behaviours at this level as we do at the others. This starts with being physically, mentally and emotionally fir to do the job every day we walk out. This is a challenge we all face and sometimes fail in our careers. There is no shame in that as long we learn and build upon it. It is something though that we can leverage over others to give ourselves that advantage in interpersonal conflict . In the words of Sun Tzu from the Art of War ““First learn to become invincible, then wait for your enemy’s moment of vulnerability.”
Conflict isn’t easy. Its not meant to be. It has an impact on us every single time whether we know it or admit it. As professionals we must show the self awareness to recognise, acknowledge and manage this impact. Knowledge is power and the more we know about conflict the better equipped we are to manage it effectively. Hopefully this article can be a starting point.
If this subject interests you then join us for a Free 2 hour conflict management webinar on Monday 12th October 2020 at 19:00 GMT. You can register for one of the few remaining free tickets here