Attributes such as critical thinker
, decision maker
, effective communicator
and team player
are standard fare in job descriptions for most leadership positions. But often ignored in both qualities sought and taught is the ability to manage conflict. Yet most leaders admit they spend a lot of time managing conflict within their team and between their teams and others.
Creating productive work environments
For any meaningful work to get done, a general atmosphere of cooperation and teamwork is foundational. Of course, people are going to have diverging opinions and won’t always agree (that’s actually a good thing because a total lack of conflict can signal the absence of effective interaction) but left unchecked, conflict can damage relationships and make workplace progress nearly impossible.
Management research has shown that an inability to manage conflict effectively not only leads to negative outcomes in terms of productivity and quality of work, but can also undermine the credibility of the leader.
“We train people to be expert in managing technology, numbers, finance and law. But this most fundamental characteristic of human interaction – conflict – is something we are somehow just supposed to figure out as we go along, but we don’t,” explains Professor of Practice at the University of Bath School of Management in the UK, Margaret Heffernan. “Not knowing how to handle it, we prefer to ignore it and hope it goes away,” she added in an interview with the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). “The bad news is that it won’t go away; unresolved conflict festers and grows. The good news is that it doesn’t have to be that way.”
One of the things that can make conflict harder to manage is that you don’t always know it when you see it. Or what you see is different from what someone else sees — a concept at the heart of conflict. Some people think of conflict in antagonistic terms with one side winning and the other losing. Others find differences of opinion invigorating and enjoy a lively debate of ideas in a style others may find too combative.
In general, when talking about “conflict,” we assume there are at least two sides involved and that their objectives are in opposition, even if their larger goals might be the same. The psychologist Daniel Katz, Ph.D., says that conflict arises from three main sources. They are:
involving competition for scarce resources. In the workplace, colleagues might compete for limited funding for specific projects, prime office space, or even for the boss’s attention and favor.
centering on different ideologies and principles and more rooted in beliefs than facts. Such struggles can unfold in a working environment around issues of diversity, equity and inclusion, and recently even on the importance of being physically present or whether it’s acceptable for some team members to work remotely.
resulting from a struggle for dominance and greater influence. Power can underlie all forms of conflict in the tug-of-war for one side to get their way, but at times the desire to win greater control becomes the primary driver of conflict.
There is an upside
Competing desires among people and between groups of people is such a natural part of life that it might seem leaders would get enough experience with it personally and professionally to embrace it and manage it well. But it’s uncomfortable to feel at odds with others and so many people, even otherwise effective leaders, avoid it.
Perhaps you’ve worked for a boss who side-stepped difficult decisions and promised everyone they could have what they wanted. That approach can exacerbate conflict and lead to infighting when values and priorities are not clearly articulated. What starts as differing priorities can quickly escalate into destructive and combative conflict if not addressed.
It can help to reframe conflict as a path to greater understanding, rather than only a negative to be kept to a minimum. The CPP Global Human Capital Report asked 5,000 individuals about their experiences with conflict in the workplace. About three-quarters reported that conflict actually led to some positive outcomes. They included better understanding of others, improved working relationships, more effective problem solving and increased team performance.
Manage to better resolution
As a leader, your role is to manage
conflict to reduce the potential negative effects and increase the positive. SHRM and others suggest these guidelines.
- Don’t avoid or try to eliminate conflict. It will most likely increase its negative effects.
- Encourage team members to embrace candid dialogue and debate focused on the issues and not personalities.
- Get curious. Ask questions to help you better understand and illuminate other positions.
- Model for your team an ability to open your mind to differing viewpoints and embrace the ideas others bring to the table.
- Start with agreement. There are almost always points where thinking aligns, even if it’s simply that both sides want a resolution. Invest as much time highlighting points of connection as those of disagreement to foster sense of collaboration, not combat.
- Strive to have more than two possible solutions to avoid polarization.
By helping yourself and your team appreciate the upsides of conflict, you can help turn disagreements into discussions and conflict into collaboration that can drive greater creativity, innovation and productivity.