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Thursday, November 15, 2018

Workplace Conflict: Can Strengths Help?

by Alicia Santamaria

Annie and Christopher had been colleagues at a small nonprofit for about two years when their supervisor called me in to help them resolve some ongoing interpersonal conflict. As often is the case, the well-meaning supervisor had done everything he could to help them find ways to work productively together, even to the point of becoming the go-between for them. I am always encouraged when a leader is open to bringing in a skilled third party because some organizations are slow to acknowledge the high cost of unresolved conflict. Perhaps they fear acknowledging conflict that has reached the point of needing external support because it will reflect negatively on their management and organization? Truth is, every workplace has some conflict. I have spent my career working to help people shift and normalize their perspective on conflict -- to help them see that bringing in conflict-
resolution support is a positive step that should be done sooner rather than later.
When I began working with Annie and Christopher, I sought their permission to include CliftonStrengths in our process. As a Gallup Certified CliftonStrengths Coach, I know the tool is powerful, but what happened surprised even me.

In Annie’s words:

I avoided taking the assessment until the day before our meeting due to pent-up frustrations over the concept of this mediation process. I was on the train heading home after a long day at work, and as I was reading through the results of the assessment, I got teary. The listed strengths defined me better than I could have defined myself. Key phrases and attributes clearly articulated my thought processes, priorities, behaviors and needs. I felt heard before I even spoke.

Annie’s apprehension and skepticism about the mediation experience are common. I always hold preliminary one-on-one conversations before such a joint meeting to address this and to prepare the participants for a productive session. But her experience with the assessment did a lot of that work for me. I was struck by the impact it had on her and how much it benefited me to know both Annie’s and Christopher’s strengths at the start of our work together. My initial trust-building with each of them was accelerated as we talked about their individual roles in the conflict and their needs moving forward toward a more productive relationship. It was powerful to have them step into their mediated discussion from a place of strength.

We began the initial mediation session together by creating working agreements and establishing conversational safety, and then we talked about their dominant CliftonStrengths. Each shared what they bring (their value and contributions) and what they need to be fully at their best. As I facilitated their sharing and listening using a structured mediation process, a lot of preconceived ideas were communicated and resolved. Often in workplace conflict, there is a misalignment between intent and impact, and this situation was no different. There were also frustrations associated with varied working styles. CliftonStrengths helped get to the root cause of the misunderstandings and helped name these behaviors, driving understanding.

In Christopher’s words: 


My conclusion is that one's worldview is shaped in part by these strengths and that different strengths could create conflicting worldviews. For example, my top three strengths are Ideation, Activator and Futuristic. It's no surprise to me that I might come into conflict with someone who is Analytical, Deliberative and prioritizes Consistency. By thinking about strengths as a core part of one’s identity, it helped me be more open to other ways of looking at the world and also provided the foundation for my counterpart in the mediation to understand me and my actions.

 At the end of our first 2-hour session, Annie and Christopher developed a written agreement that documented their new working and communication norms. Exactly a month later, we had a follow-up session to review how things were going and make any needed adjustments. At the follow-up, both spoke positively of the improvement in their relationship and felt well-equipped to manage future misunderstandings. But that wasn’t all. They each spoke about opportunities to leverage each other’s strengths. They had started to see their differences as advantages and their work as truly collaborative. 


Working with people in conflict -- and doing it well -- takes skill and experience. I am gratified by the opportunity to use my strengths to create space for people to talk with each other in a different way and to cultivate a more productive working relationship. It is exciting to experience how CliftonStrengths can help resolve workplace conflict. CliftonStrengths accelerates the work I do in building trust between people, increasing mutual understanding and enhancing their ability to perform beyond conflict. 


Grow in your understanding of CliftonStrengths and put your strengths to work:


Alicia Santamaria is CEO of San Francisco-based adelante coaching + consulting. Her mission is to facilitate moving people, teams and organizations forward (¡adelante!). She holds credentials as both a Professional Certified Coach (PCC) and Gallup Certified Strengths Coach as well as an M.A. in communication. She is also a mediator, group facilitator and trainer in the areas of communication, conflict management, leadership development and team collaboration. Additionally, she is adjunct faculty in the School of Business and Management at Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont, California.


Alicia’s Top 5 are Communication, Individualization, Woo, Learner and Input.

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