August 22, 2019

The Physics of Conflict

We’ve all experienced the excitement of discovering that hidden gem of a book that seemed to come along at just the right time in our lives. One of those books for me is Organizational Physics: The Science of Growing a Business, by Lex Sisney. The book was published in 2012 and I stumbled upon it only a year or so ago. The timing of my encounter with the book is significant in that it occurred near the time I had received training in conflict mediation. What I found most useful about the book is the central metaphor of physics to understand organizational behavior. Sisney focuses on the importance of understanding organizations as systems, to which he applies the first two laws of thermodynamics. For those of us whose last encounter with physics was in high school, I offer a quick refresher:

  • The first law of thermodynamics is that a system has a finite amount of energy.
  • The second law of thermodynamics states that systems fall apart over time, a phenomenon known as entropy.

And here’s the kicker: An organization’s available energy first flows to manage and counter the disintegrating force of entropy (Sisney). To place this phenomenon into the context of organizational life, if we have unresolved conflict between individuals, within departments, or between a CEO and a nonprofit board, much of our available mental energy will be consumed by trying to work around or through the conflict in order to keep the organization functioning. We use various other metaphors to describe this environment: putting out fires, chasing our tails, spinning our wheels, etc. We know we are stuck but we don’t know why.

Given that energy is finite, we have to wonder what aspects of the organization are not getting the attention they deserve because we simply don’t have enough energy left in our tanks because of the draining effects of dysfunction or conflict. Here is a list just off the top of my head:

  • Thinking about long-term strategy.
  • Developing the potential of staff.
  • Forming collaborative partnerships to enhance mission impact.

So, if it seems like you are consumed by conflict or dysfunction, the reason is because you are — literally. Left unchecked, conflict will continue to drain our energy until it eventually erodes our commitment to our co-workers and the mission of the organization we have chosen to serve.

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