“When conflict is ignored– especially at the top– the result will be an enterprise that competes more passionately with itself than with its competitors.”
— Howard M. Guttman, When Goliaths Clash, 2003
Managers spend an inordinate amount of time putting out fires, particularly interpersonal ones. A manager may spend 20 percent of his or her time managing conflict of one degree or another.
As long as Western culture values democratic processes and individual freedom, there will be those who are encouraged to debate. This is not necessarily a bad thing because innovative ideas often spring from those who refuse to “go along just to get along.”
Conflict is not something to be suppressed in an organization, and is not to be ignored. Left alone, conflict and interpersonal stress only get worse. Eliminating conflict is not the answer. Companies that try that approach are as doomed to failure as those who try to ignore it.
Some predict that conflict is increasing in organizations because of the pressure on people to produce more and better with less. Uncertain job security, a fluctuating economy, the stress of technological advancements– along with a background of war and terrorism– provide more factors that put people on edge.
There is a strong link between the ability to resolve conflict effectively and perceived effectiveness as a leader. According to research from the Management Development Institute of Eckerd College, managers who resolve conflict by perspective taking, creating solutions, expressing emotions and reaching out are considered to be effective. Executives who demonstrate these behaviors are seen as successful and more suitable for promotion.
Conflict is normal and natural and can be a productive stimulant for creative processes. Managed well, it can motivate and energize individuals to stretch themselves, to be open to learning from others different from themselves, and to move beyond status quo operations.
Three factors contributing to conflict in organizations are:
Some personalities just seem to clash. It is important to determine why two people rub each other the wrong way. Do they have opposing behavior styles? For example, an introvert can be judged as hard to read and even untrustworthy to an extrovert who is open and expressive about everything. A time-conscious and highly organized individual can judge a more spontaneous person harshly and find that person’s different priorities a source of irritation.
Understanding basic human differences can help people overcome being judgmental and can help them accept differences. Training in any of several assessment tools, for example MBTI, DISC, or 360’s, is a good start. Attending workshops on behavior styles is another option. An extrovert can learn to ask questions to draw out an introvert in order to gain a better understanding. A highly organized person can learn to set more realistic deadlines for those who are less organized. Taking the time to understand basic differences can prevent personality clashes and conflict before these become on-going problems.
People have different needs, values, beliefs, assumptions, experience levels, expectations and cultural frameworks. When people form expectations for the future (based on their experiences and interpretations of the past) their perceptions of reality can differ from one another, and conflict can arise.
It is necessary to explore expectations, assumptions, underlying values and priorities. This can be done openly in group or team sessions, individually by a manager or coach, or in small groups of conflicted individuals. When there is an elevated degree of conflict, it may be wise to do this with a professional trained in interpersonal skills and mediation communication.
Inquiring about values can help clarify issues. People don’t get upset by things that don’t matter to them. Behind every complaint there is an underlying value that is not being satisfied. Asking questions such as, “What’s really important here?” often leads to uncovering competing values and conflicting priorities. Creating more authentic conversations by asking the right questions is the first step toward managing conflict.
There are essentially three communication styles: non-assertive, assertive and aggressive. We all have a preferential habit or style of communicating, and we are capable of switching from one to another as appropriate. The problem is that we aren’t always aware of the way others may perceive us. While we may think we are being appropriately assertive, someone else who is more sensitive or who harbors resentment may perceive us as aggressive. Add to the mix the fact that we all have personal agendas and it is easy to see how communications break down and breed conflict.
Executives contribute to conflict by being ambiguous in their communications– either intentionally or unintentionally. Most people have a tendency to avoid conflict. We sometimes “talk out of both sides of our mouth” and give mixed messages. The issues will sort themselves out in the end, we hope. At its worst, this communication style leads to increased conflict; at its best, to an organizational climate of non-commitment.
When executives stand up and declare war on barriers to candor, they are faced with new ideas but they may continue with old skills. The freedom to question and to confront is crucial but often inadequate. To overcome organizational barriers to candor and open communications, people must learn new skills in order to ask the questions behind the questions.
This may call for a professionally trained coach or consultant, external to the organization, who is unbiased. Executives may be standing too close to the blackboard to see their communication errors. Working with an executive coach can help correct one of the ways that an executive may be contributing to conflict without even knowing it.
What conditions make a workplace fertile for conflict? An organization with a rigid hierarchical structure and an authoritarian leadership culture is fertile ground for conflict. Usually such places have a strong rumor mill, and open communications are not encouraged. There may be a poorly instituted reward and/or promotional system where unfair favoritism occurs.
Another source of conflict is limited resources. When managers have to compete with each other for resources, their competitive agendas can limit their abilities to get along with others for the benefit of the organization. They become more concerned with their own personal success or that of the business unit.
Change itself can destabilize relations, because people struggle when they are moved out of their comfort zones. Organizations that have been involved in mergers and/ or acquisitions, for example, experience more conflict. Rapidly changing environments create a ripe atmosphere for stress, anxiety and conflict.
When conflict occurs you can act in four different ways:
One of the most effective ways of facing conflict involves having realistic, open, and candid conversations. Asking the right questions to reveal underlying assumptions, expectations and values is essential. When conflict escalates, it must be addressed as soon as possible, before it becomes chronic or pervasive. Here are six keys to consider when addressing conflict:
Here are suggested “Communication Strategies for Effective Leaders” from an interview with Phil Harkins, CEO of Linkage, Inc., in Link & Learn newsletter.
People who practice honest and candid conversations are perceived as more effective and more suitable for promotion. Every conversation is a means of developing trust and commitment. Asking meaningful questions about what really matters results in relationships that are more authentic. Conflict is averted because people have a chance to say what they really mean.