Managing Conflicts – Tough Conversations

“When conflict is ignored—especially at the top—the result will be an enterprise that competes more passionately with itself than with its competitors.”

Howard M. Guttman, When Goliaths Clash, 2003

For the next few weeks, I’m going to use this blog to discuss something every leader deals with on a regular basis: conflict. Conflict can be difficult to talk about because it often provokes fear. Some managers worry that conflict within their organization is a sign that their leadership style is flawed, and instead of dealing with the problem head on, they choose to ignore it. And like most problems, this one especially tends to magnify if it isn’t addressed swiftly.

Let’s begin by discussing the problems that can arise out of conflicts. Dealing with conflict is time-consuming. If you’re in charge of people, you know how much of your time gets spent putting out fires, particularly interpersonal ones. In the work I do with managers, some tell me that at least 20 percent of their time is consumed by taking care of conflict.

But the problems don’t stop there. Productivity decreases further when coworkers ruminate over arguments and disagreements.

But conflict can also be generative. We work in a culture that values democratic processes and individual freedom, and debate is not necessarily a bad thing. New ideas often spring from those who refuse to “go along just to get along.”

Managed well, conflict can stimulate creativity, motivate people to stretch themselves, encourage peer-to-peer learning and help teams move beyond the status quo.

This is why conflict should be neither suppressed nor ignored within an organization. When it goes unnoticed, it only gets worse and invites stress. And contrary to instinct, eliminating conflict is not the answer. I’ve seen companies take this approach and I’ve seen some disasters.

It may be getting worse. Anytime there are cutbacks, there is a rise in conflict. Trend analysts predict workplace conflicts will rise because people face increased pressure to produce more and better with fewer resources.

Job insecurity, a fluctuating economy, the stress of technological advancements, increased commoditization, and an epidemic of outsourcing and downsizing  ̶  these are only some of the factors that are putting stress on today’s work force.

The Leadership Edge

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 in St. Petersburg, Florida, effective managers resolve conflicts by employing four key behaviors:

  1. Gaining perspective
  2. Creating solutions
  3. Expressing emotions
  4. Reaching out

Those who succeed are deemed more suitable for promotion. But most managers are trained in the competencies required for their careers and industries. They aren’t necessarily astute negotiators of people’s emotions and relationships.

That may be behind the recent upsurge in demand for coaching services. The more people are stressed, the more they need help in managing their emotions and relationships. Conflict is often the catalyst.

Your task, as a leader and manager, is to conduct tough conversations that help address  workplace conflicts without wasting time. Conflict isn’t something to take lightly.

Tough conversations are hard to have, worth having, but not worth risking poor outcomes.

That’s why I recommend working with an experienced coach.

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