“Conflict is inevitable, combat is optional”- Max Lucado
Conflict plays a role in the workings of a business, and it doesn’t have to be a negative one. Conflict, risk, and challenge are all “buzzwords” for change and innovation; leaders can leverage conflict for positive change through open conversation, strategic thinking, and flexibility to adjust resources, assignments, and team structures. On the other hand, ignored or unresolved conflict, on the other hand, festers and brings down morale, negatively impacts job performance and customer interactions, unravels the important benefits of teamwork, drives away talented employees, and fosters competing internal goals which can leave an overall stalemate in progress.
How can leaders prevent this disease-like progression of conflict from inflicting their workplace and how can they use conflict to benefit the company?
- Understand common causes of conflict. Keeping in mind some of the most common causes of conflict can help leaders recognize when their own decisions may result in conflict. Awareness of common causes also helps recognize conflicts as they start to emerge and to quickly address them at the root; the cause isn’t always obvious even to those who are caught up in it as frustrations can manifest in different ways. Psychologists Bell and Hart identified these eight common causes: conflicting resources, conflicting styles, conflicting perceptions, conflicting goals, conflicting pressures, conflicting roles, different personal values, and unpredictable policies.
- Face the conflict. When conflict does occur, bring those involved to the table and start an open discussion. As a leader, it is your job to listen and encourage each side to listen to each other. All people involved should describe the conflict from their perspective. By listening to this situation and validating their concerns, leaders should then be able to define the overall problem and root cause. Repeat the problem, as you see it as an outside observer, back to those involved. Through communication, bring the two parties to come to a shared definition of the problem that needs to be addressed. Before we can agree on a solution we need to agree on the problem.
- Come up with alternatives. Involved employees will be most satisfied, compliant, and empowered, if they come up with the solution themselves. Leaders can guide this process by offering several alternatives. Asking questions throughout the resolution process can help the parties realize all of the factors and implications of potential resolutions and can guide their thought process and discussion toward a strategic plan.
- Monitor and follow up. Set up a time, usually in a couple of weeks, to follow up with those involved. This can be done separately in addition to bringing each together so that each has the safe space and opportunity to be open. This also keeps parties accountable to any compromises they agreed to make to resolve the conflict. Continue to watch the situation and look for hints of its remnants. If a problem continues to fester, consider seeking outside help.
Leaders should be transparent and open about how they will handle conflict and create an open environment. Ideally, a manager wants those in conflict to seek to resolve it rather than letting it grow and manipulate. Employees should not fear retribution if they come forward to present a conflict; hiding or denying conflicts will have long term and widespread consequences. Employees also need to know what types of conflict are subject to disciplinary action (which forgoes any of this resolution processing), such as harassment and discrimination. Early on, budding conflicts can be a sign that improvements can be made. Take advantage of that opportunity.