Lessons on Managing Workplace Conflict from Seinfeld

by Joe Jones

I was watching an old episode of Seinfeld the other day, the one where George is on the receiving end of the "it's not you, it's me" break-up line.  This line by the way, is considered by George to be his signature break-up line, a nice and clean way to part ways without having to discuss or engage in the messy conflict that can come about when relationships end.

Anyways, having watched this particular episode probably 10 times over the last 15 years, for some reason this line seemed to touch a nerve with me this time.  

Like most episodes, it provided a few laughs, but looking deeper into that rather "normal" social interaction helps to explain a lot about human nature and how we tend to avoid conflict.  And when you put it into the context of business world and team interactions, it really starts to hit home for many.

Take a moment to think back to the many interactions you have had with leadership, peers, and direct reports over the last 6 months, year, 3 years...

How many instances can you recall where you took the easy way with a cop-out similar to "it's not you, it's me" just to avoid any uncomfortable conflict?  What effects did it have on you personally?  How about on the team's overall success?

Many relationships both personal and professional along with the organization or teams themselves suffer as a result of people's inability to engage in constructive conflict.  Some run like hell in the other direction when confronted, while others take a more subtle apporach to staying out of such uneasy interactions. Either way,  the draw backs from this aversion can be extremely detrimental to creating highly effective teams who are committed to a common vision.

At the leadership level,  this lack of conflict will invariably move down throughout the organization to the rest of the team and cause much larger issues that become even more difficult to undo.

A big question that must then be addressed is - What is the cost of not addressing the issue head on and gathering input from all parties involved? Sweeping the issue under the rug, or simply not airing concerns will continually be a source of aggrevation among team members.  

One strategy to help leaders push their team's toward engaging in healthy conflict, and talk about what needs to be talked about is to create Team Conflict Norms - or ground rules that the team can lean on to create an environment where constructive discussions occur.

Developing Conflict Norms is a good step in the process, but the path towards creating a strong organizational culture requires that teams be fully committed to doing what is necessary to achieve the desired outcome.

At your next team meeting count how many people around the table are "head nodding" to everything being said, but not actually providing any feedback or opinions.  Now it could be because you have a bunch of great ideas that everyone agrees with, or the lack of push back or engagement could be your team taking the easy way out by skirting conflict. 

Developing Conflict Norms is a big part of the 5 Dysfunctions of a Team Workshop.  If your team fails to use constructive conflict and the bottom-line is significantly impacted, check out the 5 Dysfunctions of a Team Workshop here or contact us today to bring the Workshop to your company.

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