Conflict of one kind or another characterizes all of our lives. It may be a minor skirmish with a teenager or spouse.
It might happen at work with a peer or boss. Certainly it happens frequently between one group and another in organizations.
Conflict seems nearly impossible to avoid. A statement a college professor made to me more than 30 years ago still rings true today: “ All conflict is a result of un met or violated expectations.” I have found this to prove true over and over again. Here’s a recent example.
Today many companies hire contract employees rather than full-time employees. There are several advantages to this. It keeps head count down, reduces benefits expense, and makes it much easier to ride the economic ups and downs that most organizations experience. When business softens, as it usually does, contractors are simply let go first with the thought, “You are only a contract employee.” I coach one of these contract employees. Early on it was clear that he was unhappy with the arrangement. “They don’t treat me like an employee,” he complained one day. “I don’t get a bonus even though I work harder than their full-time people. I’m kept from company functions and never really feel a part of the team.” “What were your expectations when you started?” I asked him recently. Going back to our simple truth above, he was feeling frustrated because of what he was experiencing.
Simply put, his expectations were not being met. He took this position because he couldn’t find a full-time job with benefits. It was, he reasoned, better than nothing. “They pay me well and the guy I report to is a pretty good guy, but I really want to feel a more critical member of the team. As long as I’m a contractor I’ll never feel that way. I’m like a step-child.” I asked him to write down his expectations – what he felt was supposed to happen and had not or, conversely, what had happened that was not supposed to occur. In either case, I wanted him to identify how his expectations were not being met. Why is this so important? When our expectations have been violated, it seems unfair and even deceiving. Sure seemed that way for this guy. “When I started they promised me all kinds of things that haven’t happened,” he explained. “They even said that if I did a great job, which I’ve done, they would bring me in as a full timer ASAP. That was two years ago and I’m tired of waiting around.” There it was. For whatever reason, someone suggested that if he did well he would earn a spot on the team. That simple comment set expectations of what would happen. When it didn’t in short order, that expectation was violated.
This almost always leads to stressful, negative feelings towards those who have failed to meet our expectations.
Where I live, many young couples planning to marry are strongly encouraged to attend pre-marital counseling. The primary purpose is to talk through and establish realistic expectations. In one instance a conflict broke out in the counselor’s office when the young man proclaimed that housework was “women’s work” and that when they had children, his wife would manage the household duties and he would earn the money outside the home.
This seemed completely fair and reasonable to him since that’s how it was done in his home growing up. His fiancée was aghast. She had grown up in a family where nearly every night her Dad would help prepare the meal and assist in the clean up afterwards. Her life experience had established her expectations about roles and responsibilities. Obviously this was something they had never talked about and likely never would have surfaced if they had not been guided through this discussion before marriage and children.
If you or someone you work with is embroiled in conflict, back up to the level of expectations and consider three key criteria. Are expectations clear and specific? Are they discussed? Are they realistic and reasonable? Notice how these play off each other. Expectations may be clear in the mind of one, but not communicated or discussed openly. They may be discussed, but be totally unrealistic and impossible to meet. If any one of these three elements is missing or not aligned, conflict will inevitably ensue.
Thus, conflict is really the observable symptom of violated or unmet expectations. That’s it. It’s not that the individuals involved are intentionally deceptive or unkind, nor that anyone attempts to hoodwink the other person deliberately. But it feels this way when one or more of the three components are missing. Let’s end these painful conflicts once and for all by addressing expectations at their core.