Why is conflict viewed so negatively in organisations, when it is one of the integral parts of the decision making process?

Why do so many managers shy away from conflict – effectively not managing or mismanaging their people?

Why are organisations so willing to go along with this?

The problem is that the very word “conflict” like most “C” words, is shrouded in fear and taboo – even as you read this you are surely turning images over in your head of personal conflict that you have lived or are living.

The very fact that the word triggers visualisation is one of the most powerful aspects of conflict and one of the reasons it is both feared and avoided by most managers.

Conflict is the mechanism, when controlled and steered effectively, that produces results, that triggers creativity and outside of the box thinking.

If everyone in the team complies and accepts things as they are, scared of rocking the boat, then things will always stay the same, with relationships balanced in a constant state of flux that hinder both team and self-growth.

When conflict is left to its inevitable ends, it can be very damaging in the workplace in teams or within hierarchies, where differences between people, ideas and beliefs can get out of control.

There are many reasons that managers avoid conflict, or at least try to avoid it.

One reason is that we are taught to comply from an early age and not to make a scene – which is how conflict is also viewed.

Conflict is similar to stress, in as much as, when it is controlled and challenged, it can bring fantastic results – but when it gets out of control, it can be extremely damaging.

Managed stress is called energy or Productive stress and likewise, managed conflict is called creativity, within a teamProductive Conflict.Conflict is a bad word, I am sure you will agree that most people will go to great pains to avoid.

The results of conflict, which is left unmanaged and unchannelled are a huge risk to the individual, the team and the organisation.

Unmanaged conflict causes low energy, resentment, low performance, negativity, fear, lack of commitment, apathy, stress and even depression – a huge individual and organisational price to pay for poor management.

One way to deal with conflict in the workplace is to understand why conflict arises, we will be looking at some theories regarding conflict to enhance awareness of this all too common phenomena.

In the 1970’s, Kilmann and Thomas identified five principle styles for dealing with conflict:

Competitive: Choosing a competitive style means that a person is putting his/her interest before anyone else’s interests. In fact, sometimes people who use the competitive style try so hard to get what they want that they ruin friendships, it leaves people feeling bruised, unsatisfied and resentful.
Collaborative: People choose this style when they try to meet the needs of all parties concerned. This is important when a variety of standpoints are grouped together in order to reach the best solution or when the team has a history of past or recurring conflicts.
Compromising: People choose a compromising style when it is important for them to satisfy some of their interests, but not all of them. Compromisers are ready to give some ground, especially when the cost of conflict if perceived to be higher than trading-off.
Accommodating: This style entails a readiness to meet the needs of others at the expense of the person’s own needs. It is often a situation where the person will play along with others in the hope that the favour gets returned. however, the reality is that favours seldom get returned, which can lead to further conflict.
Avoiding: People who choose the avoiding style refuse to get involved in conflict.
Sometimes difficult issues are delegated in such a way as the person can wash their hands off of the matter.
Sometimes the cost of conflict is much higher than taking it on, especially when the conflict could provoke an impasse situation.
However, the avoiding style is never effective, as the conflict will always rear its head time and again, increasing in magnanimity on each occasion.

Galen’s ancient temperaments, demonstrate that pairs of temperaments share certain traits in common.

  • Sanguine quick, impulsive, and relatively short-lived reactions. (hot/wet)
  • Phlegmatic a longer response-delay, but short-lived response. (cold/wet)
  • Choleric short response time-delay, but response sustained for a relatively long time. (hot/dry)
  • Melancholic (Also called “Melancholy”) long response time-delay, response sustained at length, if not, seemingly, permanently. (cold/dry)

Emoticons of the five temperaments: Sanguine (top right), Choleric (bottom right), Melancholy (bottom left), and Phlegmatic (centre), with the new temperament Supine (top left) and Phlegmatic blends in between.

Conflict resolution is an integral part of a manager’s role.

Once the different styles are understood, a manager can use them to implement the most appropriate approach (or mixture of approaches) for situations of conflict.

A manager can also take a step back, consider their own instinctive approach in order to facilitate conflict resolution, when by adopting the approach that best:

* Fits the situation

* Resolves the problem

* Respects the interests and values of the team

* Repairs damaged working relationships.

The Interest-based relational approach to conflict resolution, follows a set of precedents :

  • Ensure that relationships are the N° 1 priority
  • Separate people from problems
  • Understand standpoints
  • Agree what the the problem is and the objectives involved
  • Explore option

The important point here, is to understand the five points above before attempting to resolve conflict then to understand your own, and your team-members conflict styles, before embarking on resolution.

This is another positive aspect of conflict, it is a catalyst for learning about oneself and the people around you.

However, I feel that one of the most important elements in conflict resolution, and indeed cutting it off at its roots is communication.

Communication skills, or lack of, can defuse or inflame conflict in a team situation – this not only includes verbal skills, but entails the whole – writing, body language, effective listening and paralinguistics.

Feedback is one of the core skills in conflict resolution (see my post on giving and accepting feedback) where structure along with communication skills is of paramount importance.

So in essence, conflict is something that we will, inevitably, live with and something that we need to get used to, to tame and to put to our advantage.

In order to create synergy in a team managers need to be able to reduce the fear of conflict and to start managing!

1. Understand conflict styles – both your own and those of others.

2. Build a team charter, involving the objectives, goals, values of the organisation with statements that clearly set out agreement as to how conflict is managed.

3. Mine Conflict – search out that which is buried and deal with it in compliance with the team charter. Ignoring it won’t make it diminish nor go away.

4. Facilitate conflict resolution – When issues involving differences of opinion arise they must be addresses, ideally by the manager in order that they don’t become taboo subjects that get buried due to people feeling uncomfortable – this can lead to people returning to their old ways, stifling issues until they explode.

When we talk about conflict, it may be difficult to dissociate it with aggression, but the idea of aggression is not, and should not be linked with conflict.

Conflict is a differing opinion or standpoint – which does not mean that differences of opinion lead to aggression – this is more akin to bullying and this is not what we are looking at here.

It is important to make the distinction, and, to furthermore eradicate the fear of conflict, as it is the very fear of conflict which causes more problems than the conflict itself.

Thinking back to our idea of visualisation, if we start playing a scene in our heads of a potential conflict situation, we more often than not create a negative scene, where we play a role interacting with others which reaches such a point that we don’t even act through the fear of the impending conflict, which may, after all be a figment of our own imagination.

From this standpoint we are effectively judging others from our own situation – “not the world as it is, but as we are” – throw in the fear of conflict and we are just going around in circles.

Managers are paid to manage – shying away from conflict is one of the areas that many managers need to be coached to facilitate, to meet head-on and to navigate, as an essential part of their creativity and management skills for the greater good of the individual, the team and organisation.

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Active Consultants run interactive and distance learning training and coaching programs on Conflict Resolution and Communication Skills – contact us to find out more through the site contact form

1 Comment

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