If you are a leader – your are in the business of conflict. Research suggests the majority of managers spend a minimum of 20 percent of their time managing conflict. Yet studies also indicate that only 10 percent of managers handle conflict effectively. Conflict is a given in any workplace; differences will and do occur among co-workers, bosses and their reports. The challenge for managers is not to suppress (or avoid) conflict but to learn to manage it effectively.
When managed poorly, conflict can become unhealthy and may result in huge organizational cost — lost productivity, low morale and high turnover. Many managers bounce between the extremes of avoidance (hoping it will magically go away) or taking action in extreme ways (punishment, anger, blame, accusations or lashing out).
We have varying degrees of comfort with conflict, and approach it in different ways. Most of us have a “preferred” style of conflict management. This doesn’t mean we don’t use other styles. It means we have a greater comfort with (and tendency to employ) a particular style over others.
What is your preferred style for handling conflict? There are professional resources and assessments to help you identify this. One frequently used instrument is the TKI (Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument), which identifies the following five primary conflict management styles:
- Avoiding — not addressing the conflict (postponing or withdrawing).
- Accommodating — acquiescing and letting the other have his or her way (self-sacrificing for the sake of the relationship).
- Competing — there will be one winner and one loser; using persuasion and power to win.
- Compromising — each one gives a little and loses a little trying to find middle ground.
- Collaborating — exploring for a win/win to create a solution that satisfies both parties.
As a professional leadership consultant, some of the most difficult executive challenges I am engaged with involve situations with great internal, organizational or interpersonal conflict.
Here are a few tips to handle conflict more effectively:
Invest upfront and spend more time contracting prior to the project kickoff. Define and set clear expectations for tasks, objectives and role responsibilities. Establish timelines and expected completion times for project benchmarks. If disagreement occurs during the project, go back to the contracting phase and review or, if necessary, re-establish expectations and roles.
Get clear about what the conflict is about. Managers need to remember that there are at least two sides to every story. It’s easy to lose sight of the facts when a conflict deteriorates into an emotionally charged interchange. It’s important to talk about what the core issues are, what’s not working and what can be done differently. Take the “helicopter” view and consider the systemic reason behind what has gone wrong. In my experience, the core issue is often a system or organizational process versus a personality or personal one. Long-term or repetitive conflicts often require professional organizational development expertise to help resolve systemic issues.
Avoid blaming. Blaming often generates defensiveness or retaliation. Own and communicate your contribution to the conflict. Use empathy (what it’s like to be in their shoes). Use curiosity to try to understand their perspective. Most people will “de-escalate” in a heated conflict if they feel heard, acknowledged and understood. This isn’t about agreement — it’s more about simply understanding where the other person is coming from. This is not easy when emotions are high (particularly if your “inner lizard” kicks in).
It can be highly beneficial to “debrief” after significant conflict. It’s important to create a plan for dealing with conflict moving forward — one that identifies what worked and didn’t work last time. Use these learnings to identify behaviors that may help resolve any future conflict. Nobody wants to go through unnecessary pain resolving the same problem again.
In a fast-moving, growing and challenging business environment, conflict in inevitable. It is also a highly effective process (when managed well) for any high-performing team to reach creative solutions. An organization without conflict isn’t trying hard enough.
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