Dealing with Conflict

One of the important elements of an organization’s culture is how it deals with conflict. Most often the way that the organization deals with conflict is a reflection or a result of the way that leadership deals with conflict. Conflict is often viewed as negative but it does not need to be. There are three general ways in which organizations deal with conflict: they allow negative conflict, they avoid conflict, or they strive to keep conflict positive. The difference between these three is the way in which conflict is managed and modeled by leadership.

Conflict culture leadership Ken Vaughan

Negative conflict is the type with which we are most familiar, filled with tension and anger. In fact, many of the definitions of conflict describe it in this way: 1) “hostile encounter: fight, battle, or war” or 2) “the pursuit of incompatible goals, such that gains to one side come about at the expense of the other.” Conflict becomes negative as it becomes an emotional, interpersonal battle where one party must win and the other must lose.

Negative conflict is destructive conflict. By its nature it fractures relationships. The results of negative conflict include such things as:

  • tension and stress in the organization
  • atmosphere of negativity
  • damaged group dynamics as people take sides
  • less commitment to organizational goals
  • loss of productivity as energy is spent on conflict rather than productive tasks
  • breakdown in communication
  • reduced exchange of ideas and information
  • diminished trust and support
  • development of lasting animosities
  • lower job satisfaction
  • potential loss of disgruntled employees.

A culture of negative conflict often develops when either the leader is prone to making personal attacks himself or when the leader is afraid of conflict and is unable to step in to resolve or diffuse it. Both of these leadership practices are signs of a character weakness in the leader that needs to be addressed.

Some organizational cultures attempt to prevent negative conflict by avoiding conflict altogether, most often because their leader cannot deal with any conflict. Conflict-avoidant leaders are unable to effectively face conflict, generally because of something within their character that tells them to withdraw and protect themselves rather than leaning in to deal with it positively. The culture of conflict-avoidant organizations says that conflict is unacceptable and cannot be tolerated. Such a stance does not resolve conflict but rather drives it underground where it often festers and grows.

The effect on the conflict-avoidant organization is similar to the effect caused by negative conflicts, except that many of the effects take place below the surface. Therefore there is even less likelihood of resolution. Since conflict is underground in such organizations the effects can include quiet alliances, organizational subterfuge and sabotage, loss of energy and productivity, and loss of employees due to the negative work environment.

Both negative conflict and conflict avoidance are generally interpersonal struggles. Even when they begin with a business issue they often denigrate into a win/lose battle between individuals or groups. This interpersonal nature is the cause of the negative consequences.

There is a third way of dealing with conflict, the positive conflict. Positive conflict’s main feature is that it invites discussion and opposing views in business discussions without becoming personal attacks. The leader builds a culture that is safe and trusting for its people while encouraging a thorough review of business facts and issues. Rather than a destructive personal attack and a win/lose battle, positive conflict values the contribution of everyone in the business discussion with the expectation that various perspectives can drive better decisions. The culture of such an organization says that people and their input are always valued as we seek the best solutions.

With a culture that encourages positive conflict the outcome is more often:

  • stimulate involvement in the discussion
  • enhance creativity and imagination
  • facilitate employee growth
  • increase movement toward goals
  • create energetic climate
  • build more synergy and cohesion within teams
  • foster new ideas, alternatives, and solutions
  • test positions and beliefs
  • improved quality of decisions.

Coworkers who are able to successfully use positive conflict management strategies to solve problems in the workplace tend to become a more cohesive and unified work group. When a group of people works together through the process of resolving a disagreement in a constructive manner, the group is likely to be more committed to the decision that is reached as well as to the group itself. Working through conflict can create fresh insights that result in unique solutions. Often, the solutions that arise from conflict are better and more creative solutions than would have developed if everyone had been in agreement from the beginning. Effective conflict management can result in both enhanced overall productivity in addition to the accomplishment of goals.

How can an organization make conflict positive? In positive conflict the discussion should focus on the problem, not the person and on the future, not the past. When resolving conflicts, focus on finding ways that will allow all people to “win.” Negative conflict results in one side “winning” at the expense of another. Conflict becomes unhealthy when it is avoided or approached on a win/lose basis, where one side is the winner and one is the loser. The responsibility of both leaders and team members is to ensure that this situation doesn’t occur, because it has negative effects for both the winner and loser. Instead, strive to build a culture that is safe and trusting where each person is valued and the team works together for a common goal of finding the best solutions. To do so, build these values and practices:

  1. Commit to the value of every individual
  2. Do not manipulate others
  3. Do not use threats or bluffs to achieve goals
  4. Try to understand personal needs and the needs of others accurately
  5. Openly and honestly communicate with other people
  6. Attempt to pursue a common goal rather than individual goals
  7. Evaluate ideas and suggestions on their own merits regardless of the source
  8. Attempt to find solutions to problems
  9. Strive for group cohesiveness.

As a leader, it is necessary to have the character traits and emotional intelligence that allows perceiving when conflict begins to become personal and leaning in to protect the individual and focus on the issue.

Does your organization use conflict in a positive manner? Are you comfortable leaning in to make conflict positive and productive?

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