Studies show that couldn't be farther from the truth. Organizations that avoid conflict, either purposely or tacitly, create an environment where many critical forms of communication start to break down:
- Prioritization becomes difficult as organizations fail to make challenging trade-offs – which leads to overwhelming workloads.
- Tolerance of poor performance is increased, making others pull the weight, leading to an overall reduction in productivity.
- Expressing dissent or frustration feels unsafe and leads to a closed, less inclusive, and less diverse environment – you can see how this might increase stress and resentment.
This tends to come as a surprise to leaders, managers, and even colleagues because they have expectations that investments into collaboration will instead reduce conflict when, in fact, these investments (e.g. restructuring, new tools) actually produce more conflict – not less.
Humans lack the inherent ability to deal with conflict. After all, we're biologically wired to seek safety through our survival instincts – this makes conflict even more challenging but still not an excuse to avoid it (feedback isn't going to kill you). Worse yet, societally, we're indoctrinated to be sensitive and kind (you've heard the phrase "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all!"). Finally, to stack on as if those two weren't enough, we're rewarded for following the flow and punished when we "rock the boat" at work. In short, conflict aversion runs extremely deep.
Despite the hurdles and obstacles of introducing conflict to your organization, there are straightforward solutions that leaders, managers, and colleagues can put in place to manage it effectively.
- Managing the emergence of conflict
- Managing conflict escalation
How to manage the emergence of conflictManaging conflict is more manageable when the members involved are equipped to resolve it themselves. Here are a few tools to help members in conflict make wiser decisions which can lead to the institutionalization of these tools:
- Create a structured resolution plan and communicate it repetitively
- Educate people on criteria for making trade-offs
- When escalation happens, use it as an opportunity to coach
We've all been here at least once in our career. To better explain, let's pretend we all work for a pretend organization called Acme Corporation. You're a partnerships person with a prospective customer asking whether Acme's service supports a specific integration (you know you don't, but this deal will push you over your quarterly quota). You know you'll need to speak with design, product, marketing, engineering, and leadership to get complete buy-in. Expectedly, each team is having a bit of a reaction to this. How do we redistribute resources off other critical projects? Who has the last say when there are misalignments on development vs revenue? Considering these challenging questions, Acme is discovering that one large prospect produces a lot of internal conflicts.
How familiar is this story, too familiar? Most organizations will face comparable problems to this one. The outcome is that deals become increasingly harder to close due to damaged relationships between the parties involved. You need a structured resolution plan to avoid people getting weighed down by not only the path to discovering the solution but also finding the "right solution." Often when the members involved muster the courage to confront their disagreements, it's an "I know best" approach ending in small concessions with the consequence of a less than ideal "split the difference" resolution – if not a complete standstill.
We recommend that you establish a company-wide process for resolving disagreements to alter this familiar experience's outcome. A well-defined, designed, and communicated resolution plan will dramatically reduce wasted time and resentment. In return, your organization will yield more innovative outcomes and more productivity. To be sure it remains effective, be sure your plan is clear, concise, and offers step-by-step instructions to follow. To be sure it's sustainable, it needs to be made an integral part of everyone's day-to-day workflow, specifically when engaging with one another and a conflict emerges.
Managing conflict escalationIf you've implemented the above, only some complicated conflicts will need to be resolved by leadership. However, it's critical to get this right. Reports will be watching how managers resolve the conflict and to further benefit from the escalation, managers must resolve the conflict through ways that model desired behaviors in reports:
- Only accept escalation from all participating members
- Managers must resolve escalated conflicts with counterparts
- Make escalated conflict resolution fully transparent
An exercise to improve and normalize conflict
Draw a circle
Divide that circle into equal pieces account for each person/role
- What's this person/role's unique value?
- What should this person/role be paying attention to?
- What would you miss if this person/role was no longer here?
- Which stakeholders does this person/role focus on?
- Who does this person/role report to, and who defines its success?
- What type of conflict does this person/role most often put on the team?
- What's the one thing this person/role says that frustrates others?
- Someone championing a decision with limited data or information.
- A team member that's become quiet due to past conflicts not getting resolved, creating an imbalance within the team.
- A power imbalance where one or a few members overpower the rest; goals being misaligned between each team member.