Virtually every leader of any successful organization will tell you that collaboration lies at the center of what makes an organization successful. So why do so many leaders struggle to get their employees to collaborate?

As a conflict mediator, I’ve worked with dozens of organizations over the past 15 years that deeply value collaboration. By the time I enter the picture, they are doing everything but collaborating.

Collaboration, as a cultural value, starts to fall apart when conflict enters the picture.

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In an ideal world, every team in the organization collaborates to provide the most effective results. In the real world, people don’t see eye-to-eye, have competing values, or get stuck when faced with challenging tasks. Factions and silos begin to emerge. By the time I arrive, many organizations are paralyzed or failing.  

They say they want more collaboration. But everything they are doing and thinking is producing the opposite result. One way to define conflict is “our inability to collaboratively solve problems with other people.”

Conflict is always going to be with us—relationships are funny that way. Knowing how to transform destructive conflict into constructive conflict is critical to our personal, professional, and societal well-being. Yet, by and large, we are terrible at it.

This inability to collaboratively solve problems typically leads to fear and frustration and then leads to individuals choosing alternative, less effective conflict styles to try to get through the problem. When faced with conflict, most people choose to avoid, accommodate, compete, or compromise to solve the conflict.

The challenge is that most of these conflict styles don’t get us to collaboration and end up making the problem worse, not better. What keeps us from re-engaging collaboration? Fear.

Conflict feels dangerous for most people. We flee from it if we can. If we can’t run, we either give in or prepare for war. We build walls to protect us from the impending harm—emotional and physical—we fear is coming. People react to fear differently. Here are the four most common conflict styles I see when team members are in conflict.

1. Avoidance

This is the most common style I see at work. People just bury their heads in the sand and ignore the breakdown completely. How do I know I’m avoiding? Have you been keeping everything in, avoiding awkward conversations, or even avoiding being in the same space? Do you change the topic of conversation if something uncomfortable comes up? Do you feel anxiety, stress, or tension in your relationship? Are you emotionally disconnected?

2. Force or Competition

This is the second most common style at work. When faced with the inability to collaborate, team members or leaders begin just forcing their solutions through. Are you competing? Do you believe that the only way to get what you want is to win the conflict? Are your solutions to the problem the only ones that make sense or seem rational? Are you afraid of appearing weak, soft, or enabling if you acknowledge or concede that you might not be right? Are your values or opinions or being right the most important factors for you?

3. Accommodation

This style happens more at home than in the workplace. Still, I’m surprised how often employees get positive reinforcement for being “easy-going” or “going with the flow” even though this style hinders real collaboration. Do you quickly give in when conflict arises? Do you keep your opinions to yourself and just agree to keep harmony in the relationship? Do you feel resentful that your needs aren’t being addressed? Do you feel guilty asking for or getting what you want? Do you feel like a martyr or victim? Are you the only person in the relationship who is trying?

4. Compromise

Many leaders covet compromise as a way to get through conflict. But compromise, while potentially superior to the other styles, has its drawbacks. Instead of working on solutions that work for everyone, each party tries to maximize their gains and minimize their losses while sticking to the same tired solutions that haven’t worked in the past. Have you been trying to work out a solution that seems fair? Are you offering to give up things if they give up something too? Are you pursuing a strategy where you split the difference? Are they complaining that the solutions you keep suggesting are unfair or are asking them to give up too much? Or are you complaining that the solutions they keep suggesting are unjust or are asking you to give up too much?

So how do you get to real collaboration? Collaboration is to try to find a creative solution to our problems that will give everyone what we need. We practice collaboration when we:

  1. Have a high level of concern for our outcomes and a high level of concern for others’ outcomes in the organization. Our success and their success matters. And most importantly, the success of the organization matters to us. 
  2. See the humanity of the people we are working with so clearly that their needs and desires matter as much to me as my own, regardless of how the other people on the team see me.
  3. No longer feel the need to defend ourselves or avoid the conflict or give in. We spend more time building relationships and listening and less time trying to convert, correct, or convince others.
  4. Ask questions instead of jumping to conclusions. We get curious about the people we are problem-solving with and the people we are problems solving for.
  5. Commit to working through the problem until it meets all the needs of the people and the organization. This may mean scrapping our good ideas or letting go of getting the credit for finding the solution. The best collaborations happen when everyone on the team feels that their voice was important to the process.

As you can imagine, trying to engage in a collaborative style negotiation or problem-solving session at work while both sides are separated and mired in the fear-based view of conflict can be challenging. No wonder collaboration takes so much time and is so difficult to achieve.

However, those limitations disappear when the people in conflict begin to see each other as people. Once that happens, they are suddenly alive to the needs of others, even their supposed enemies. They begin to matter the same way we matter. That changes everything.