Psychologists say the secret to dealing with conflict at work is to think like Dirty Harry

Don’t mess with this guy.
Don’t mess with this guy.
Image: AP Photo/Chris Weeks
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At first glance, Dirty Harry and Mary Poppins may not seem to have a lot in common. But the two classic film characters share a specific philosophy when it comes to conflict resolution. And they each have a lot to teach us about dealing with disagreements in the workplace.

On a superficial level, they seem like an unlikely pairing. Dirty Harry was armed with a revolver; Ms. Poppins carried only a flying umbrella and a bottomless carpetbag. Mary liked to make children laugh; Harry, not so much. Harry argued at length with his boss, even daring to insult him. Mary merely informed her employer, “I never explain anything.”

But when it comes to conflict, they were working from the same playbook. Harry and Mary both exemplify an approach to conflict that is based on the individual pursuit of goals that happen to be good for the organization—even if neither one was particularly engaged with their employer on a psychological level. Once Harry kills the last bad guy, he throws his badge into the water and walks into the distance. Once Mary transforms the Banks family, the wind carries her up and away to another family. Both act independently, pursuing professional goals they deeply believe in. For the most part, these heroes ignore colleagues and bosses unless they get in the way.

Each of these characters exemplify a truth that often goes unspoken among management types. The fact is that, in the workplace, not everything of value requires cooperation—or even leadership.

Perhaps you can relate to Dirty Harry and Mary Poppins. Maybe you’re a teacher in a dysfunctional school, and you want to help students learn without stepping into the morass of red tape and bureaucracy. Maybe you’re in IT and would prefer to focus on keeping networks secure and ignore office politics. Perhaps you’re in sales at a particular company, and much of your job involves little to no collaboration or competition with your coworkers.

If these scenarios resonate, consider the attitudes of Harry and Mary. These characters realized that they could accomplish their goals better through individual efforts. They didn’t avoid conflict in the least. They just stayed focused on their mission and let conflicts flow around them, unless they needed to address conflict in order to reach their endgame.

How can you practice the autonomy strategy? Here are a few tactics:

Deliver extraordinary value. The more you prove yourself at whatever you do—whether it’s sales, engineering, medicine, teaching, or human resources—the more autonomy you will be granted. Put another way, if you want to stay out of conflicts that do not matter to you, make sure you shine at your organization.

Present yourself as a detached expert. When you acquire specialized knowledge in areas that foster others’ dependence on you, you can preserve your detachment from an undesirable fight that interferes with your goals. If you are the only person who masters a necessary technology, the only doctor who can perform an important procedure, or the only manager who can present on a certain topic, you can insulate yourself from personal conflicts. Let your expertise stand as the authority, even if you are not the boss.

Nurture a niche away from the fray. You can develop roles and opportunities that allow you to operate from the periphery and disengage from dissent.

To imagine how to put all of these tactics into action, consider Pete—a man who’s not your stereotypical salesman. He’s very reserved, even shy. But he works for a mechanical engineering company where he specializes in their most technical products. While other salespeople can sell most of the organization’s line, Pete is the only one who can sell certain specialty products. He does it by staying meticulously organized, constantly studying, traveling to clients around the country for face-to-face discussions, and avoiding the main office.

Pete is willing to quietly disagree with a client who has misunderstood how to operate or repair a machine, because he wants to save the sale and add to it. He is willing to politely disagree with company policy if it prevents him from selling and helping customers. What he is not willing to engage in are personality conflicts, team squabbles, or office politics. And because clients and competitors frequently offer Pete good jobs, his company wants to keep him satisfied. His niche is his kingdom, far, far away from the fold. His employer does not want Pete to leave, so they leave him alone. For a good number of people, this is paradise.

If you’re looking to preserve your autonomy at work, remember that it’s not an all-or-nothing strategy. You can work with a team on some tasks, and establish your autonomy in others. And if you find yourself confronted with an unpleasant but ultimately necessary task, simply adopt Mary Poppins’ motto: “Oh well, if we must, we must.”