Charlie Sheen may be our new “model” for how to effortlessly embarrass yourself and undermine your career by instigating turmoil and conflict (and he made over $1 million per episode). As he and others are publicized, it’s no wonder the concept of conflict is associated with something that is inevitable and invariably bad. On the company front, managers spend an inordinate amount of time putting out fires, particularly interpersonal ones. In my executive coaching practice, I’d guess that at least 20 percent of an executive’s time is consumed by managing conflict. I’ve seen productivity dips when coworkers ruminate over arguments and disagreements. Consulting Psychologist Press (CPP) noted that almost 20 percent of employees claim their disputes remain unresolved.
As long as our culture values democratic processes and individual freedoms, some workplaces will encourage debate. Conflict should be neither suppressed nor ignored within an organization. When it goes unnoticed, it will worsen and invite interpersonal stress. Eliminating conflict is not the answer and companies that take this approach are also doomed to fail. It’s not going away. In fact, the majority of futurist (and me) predict that workplace conflicts will rise because people face increased pressure to produce more and better with fewer resources. Job insecurity, a fluctuating economy, competing priorities, the stress of technological advancements and an epidemic of outsourcing and downsizing are putting the workforce on edge. Are you seeing the abatement of any of these trends?
There is a strong link between the ability to resolve conflict and one’s perceived effectiveness as a leader. According to research from the Management Development Institute of Eckerd College, effective managers resolve conflicts by employing four key behaviors:
- Gaining perspective
- Creating solutions
- Expressing emotions
- Reaching out
Those who succeed are deemed more suitable for promotion. But most managers are trained in the competencies required for their specific jobs. They aren’t necessarily astute negotiators of people’s emotions and relationships. They could use help and it’s on the way.
The good news is that there is well documented methodology that will turn conflict into a positive force. I was faced with such a circumstance. When a long-term client came to me for a program in “conflict resolution” we discussed options that led to a more effective spin when faced with interpersonal differences. We changed the focus to: Boosting Cooperation and Collaboration. Why? Because, managed well, conflict can stimulate creativity, motivate people to stretch themselves, encourage peer-to-peer learning and help teams move beyond the status quo. A manager’s task is to guide transparent conversations that help resolve workplace conflicts. It’s a trainable skill. Let me quickly summarize some essentials that have informed me (and hopefully you) in how to deal with disagreements.
Three Sources of Conflict
Three primary factors contribute to organizational conflicts:
- Differences in behavior and communication styles
- Differences in priorities and values
- Workplace conditions, including poor communications from leaders
Some personalities just seem to clash. It is important to determine why two people rub each other the wrong way. Do they have opposing behavioral styles? For example, an extrovert who is open and expressive can view an introvert as hard to read and untrustworthy. Likewise, a time-conscious, highly organized employee may harshly judge a more spontaneous colleague.
Teaching team members to understand basic human differences can help them overcome their tendencies to judge and learn to accept coworkers’ differences. Consider using any of the commonly accepted assessment tools, such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), another inventory or 360-degree feedback. Understanding personality differences can help prevent clashes before they become ongoing, serious problems.
Workshops provide another option. The techniques that work in turning negative relations into more positive ones are known and teachable. About 95 percent of those who completed a workshop indicated that the training helped. Specifically, 58 percent concluded they are more likely to seek win-win solutions; 27 percent felt more confident about managing disputes (CPP). I have found considerable interest from organizations that are seeking a more collaborative culture.
Expectations and Assumptions
People have different needs, values, beliefs, assumptions and cultural frameworks. Your expectations are fed by your past experiences. If you erroneously assume that others are essentially mirror images, your lack of clarity can create strife.
Leaders and teams must explore others’ expectations, assumptions, underlying values and priorities. This can be accomplished in group or individual sessions, led by a manager or coach. When there is an elevated degree of conflict, it’s wise to retain a professional who is trained in interpersonal skills and mediation.
Behind every complaint is an underlying value that goes unsatisfied. Asking questions like “What’s really important here?” allows you to uncover competing values and priorities. You will facilitate more authentic conversations when you ask the right questions, a learned skill.
Communication styles can fall into three camps: non-assertive, assertive and aggressive. Likewise, coping with conflict falls into five modes: accommodate, compromise, assert, collaborate and avoid (Thomas-Kilman Inventory). Each of us has a preference and we’re capable, but often neglect because of habit, of switching to another, as appropriate.
We are sometimes unaware, however, of how others perceive us. You may think you’re being appropriately assertive, but a more sensitive or resentful coworker may perceive you to be aggressive. Add to the mix our personal agendas and it’s easy to see how communication breakdowns breed conflict.
Executive Sources of Conflict
Executives contribute to conflict by communicating ambiguously, either intentionally or unintentionally. Most of us want to avoid conflict, but we can sometimes “talk out of both sides of our mouths” and give mixed messages. In optimal circumstances, issues may be resolved, but such communication fosters an organizational climate that discourages commitment (at best) and promotes conflicts (at worst).
When executives stand up and declare war on barriers to candor, they can welcome new ideas—but they may be saddled with old skills. Leaders must ask the questions behind the questions to foster honest communications and supply training opportunities.
Many executives are sitting too close to the blackboard to see their communication errors. An unbiased professional coach or consultant can spot weaknesses and help correct approaches that contribute to conflict.
Organizational Sources of Conflict
Several conditions make a workplace fertile ground for conflict:
- If an organization has a rigid hierarchical structure, with an authoritarian leadership culture, expect incessant arguments and a robust rumor mill. In this type of environment, open communications are discouraged.
- A poorly instituted reward/promotional system, where unfair favoritism occurs?
- When managers are forced to compete for limited resources, their agendas can prevent them from getting along with others. They become more concerned with their personal or departmental gains and forget about the organization’s overall well-being.
- Change itself can destabilize relations because people struggle when they’re forced out of their comfort zones. Companies involved in mergers and/or acquisitions, for example, experience more conflict. Rapidly changing environments create a ripe atmosphere for stress, anxiety and conflict.
In my next excerpt, I’ll give you some solutions about ways to cope with interpersonal conflict. In the mean time, what are your experiences? How much conflict do you or your company face? What has worked for you? Have you turned a sow’s ear (the conflict) into a silk purse (creative solution)?