A colleague of mine recently said that while she does not like conflict on her projects, she does realize it is a sign that people are engaged and passionate about what the team is trying to carry out. In HBR’s blog, The Right Way to Fight, the author states “Differences of opinion at work are inevitable and often integral to innovation, problem-solving, and performance improvement.” So if the author is right about the value of conflict, then why are so many people, like my colleague, uneasy with the idea of managing conflict? In this post I am going to review some pitfalls and benefits of managing conflict, as well as some techniques to help you in this space. Take a quick moment to laugh at this Monty Python clip… I hope this isn’t how your conflict management sessions go.
Why So Much Conflict in Today’s Organizations?
All too often, the heat of the discussion overtakes the cause & understanding of why there is conflict in the first place. In Harvard Business Review’s Podcast, How to Manage Conflict, Gill Corkindale talks about 2 main reasons conflict is on the rise…
- The shift from regional, hierarchical reporting structures to global, matrix organizations is one key reason she states. Diversity isn’t the issues, but the training of leadership to effectively manage virtual teams & employees with different view points, experiences, etc is the issue.
- The second issue Corkindale mentions is competition. In today’s economy, resources are thin and the pressure to bring value (management and team members) is greater then ever. Managers are jockeying for budget, team members are working more hours to complete the assignments, and so on.
Benefits of Conflict
If employee turnover is relatively high and there is a pool of unemployed talent, why should a manager care about conflict so much? “If John Doe doesn’t like it, he can leave and I will get someone else.” Aside from the costs associated with on boarding, ramping, etc there are some benefits to conflict. In this CIO.com post, the author discusses a number of benefits to conflict…
- Conflict motivates employees to work harder and often talents come to the forefront during these circumstances.
- Conflict can provide a constructive outlet to address some psychological needs like aggression, esteem, etc
- Conflict often leads to more innovative ideas
- Working through conflict and overcoming often helps develop long-lasting relationships.
What are the Common Pitfalls?
The majority of resources in this post have shared reasons for ineffective conflict management…
- Avoidance – So many people are uncomfortable with the idea of conflict, they simply avoid it. Maybe they can move some folks around or they think the project is almost over and simply never address the issues.
- Personalizing – Too often, the discussions shift from the technique or approach and it gets personal. People become insulted, feel attacked, etc. Corkindale makes the point that if people avoid conflict the issues fester, the gap widens, and the conflict shifts from task-focused to relational-focused.
- Leveraging technology (email, chat, etc) – During times of conflict, a persons tone and facial expressions are key to the discussion and successful understanding between the parties. Do not try to resolve conflict via an email.
Okay, so how do I succeed?
From on overall organizational view, this Wall Street Journal blog suggests implementing the following:
- Don’t underestimate the importance of a good personality fit during the interviewing stage.
- Ensure management enforces organizational rules across the board. Favoritism creates underlying issues that lead to conflict.
- Focus on training leadership resources. Gill Corkindale referenced lack of training in the IdeaCast mentioned above and the guys over at Manager-Tools state lack of training in their podcast, Resolving Conflict.
- Provide an outlet for your employees to vent…anonymous email. (Some organizations leverage an Ombudsman)
From a more personal view, take some pointers from the following resources: Project Smart’s post The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Dialgue, Forbes.com’s How To Deal With Conflict at Work, and HBR’s The Right Way to Fight
- Don’t assume you can’t fix it. Be proactive, no action is worse.
- Be prepared…Know your position and theirs
- Have a picture in your mind…not of changing them, but one that gets results while preserving the relationship and minimizes damage.
- Listen! Even if you interrupt to correct a clear misinterpretation, it is viewed as combative from the other side of the table. Letting the other party express their position will go a long way to show you are open. Another post says listening allows you to find other clues into their position, misunderstanding, etc. These clues can actually help your case, but If you are not listening then you will miss it.
- Prioritize & stick to the heart of the matter. Don’t let pet peeves and other minor issues derail success.
- Think win-win. Know what you must have, as well as where you can give in and offer as a ‘peace offering’.
- Sharpen the saw…develop your skills in low-stakes situations. Practice is the key.
- Build relationships so you know why people are taking a position and how your solution could potentially help them.
- Develop multiple techniques to resolving conflict.
I hope you were able to take something from this post and would love to hear about some of your favorite techniques and/or pitfalls for Conflict Management. Have a great week!