How to Turn Workplace Conflict into a Strategic Advantage


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In today’s business climate, the contrast between organizations that manage workplace conflict effectively and those that don’t is great. Organizations with neglected, ill-defined or immature conflict management approaches experience a host of undesirable effects, from reduced productivity and poor decisions to information suppression and gridlock. At times, these escalate, causing stress and division, upending work relationships, and leading to hostility, grievances or even legal action.

Organizations with mature conflict approaches, conversely, create an environment people perceive as fair and equitable. Diverse perspectives are incorporated into decisions in an environment where dissenting information flows freely.

How can leaders ensure their organizations fall into the latter group? While conflict management is a large topic, a few key things must happen for efforts to be effective.

Related: 6 Strategies to Resolve Conflict at Work

Understanding conflict theory

As with any workplace phenomenon, harnessing conflict for positive results requires a common way of describing its fundamental elements. We can start by offering a definition of conflict that differs from how people typically tend to view it. Rather than viewing conflict as inherently destructive, organizations with a mature approach define it as the presence of opinions or concerns that are in opposition to each other. This diversity of opinion, they recognize, is inherent to the human experience.

The infighting we see in organizations is only one way in which conflict is seen.

Researchers Ralph Kilmann and Ken Thomas identified five overarching modes people default to when approaching conflict (disclosure: my firm sells the Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument). These can be understood in terms of how people apply varying degrees of assertiveness and cooperativeness.

Competing: This assertive, uncooperative approach happens when one party seeks a 100% win.

Accommodating: This is an unassertive, cooperative approach where one party lets the other get all of what they want.

Compromising: This is a somewhat assertive, somewhat cooperative approach in which both parties get some, but not all of what they want.

Avoiding: This unassertive, uncooperative approach happens when at least one party declines to engage in the conflict.

Collaborating: This assertive yet cooperative mode occurs when two or more parties take a problem-solving approach that hears the concerns of all involved.

Collaborating stands out in that it often produces an entirely new solution than what may have been originally envisioned. It requires the most skill and practice. And while it isn’t appropriate for every scenario, it tends to be the most underused. Not surprisingly, organizations with a mature approach to conflict tend to use this mode more frequently.

Identifying a team’s conflict culture

Due to life and work experience, backgrounds, and innate psychological and personality preferences, people tend to default to one of these five conflict modes — usually without being aware of it. Similarly, they often don’t consider that there might be other approaches, slipping into the mode that feels most comfortable to them.

Furthermore, based on the combination of conflict styles of its members, teams and organizations have a conflict culture. When this culture is uncultivated, conflict tends to be unproductive — even destructive.

Becoming self-aware and other-aware, therefore, is necessary to developing conflict-handling competency. Increased awareness of conflict modes leads to a reduction in people’s tendency to immediately strike defensive or offensive postures as conflicts arise. With strategic training and development, people’s unconscious habits and assumptions become conscious, and they gain perspective on their power of choice during conflict.

Moreover, their tendencies and behaviors in dealing with conflict can now be observed, measured and improved. Teams can select the right mode for the conflict, rather than defaulting to however they’re used to handling it.

Before this begins, however, organizations must uncover their conflict culture. For example, an organization might discover they are biased toward viewing conflict as a threat to teamwork. Others may learn that they tend to view it as a time and resource drain to be avoided. Still, others may see they are predisposed to view it as a threat to the authority of leadership and organizational stability. These perspectives can shape the culture in which employees operate, radically impacting whether they deal with conflict appropriately.

To develop greater conflict management effectiveness, we must know our starting point. First, organizations must uncover their biases, assumptions and perspectives on conflict. From here, strides toward a healthier culture can begin. Next, every team must build employee skills in self-awareness and other-awareness through strategic training and development. Teams will then need help transitioning to the new behaviors.

Related: 3 Ways to Use Conflict to Strengthen Your Startup

Selecting the best conflict approach

With this awareness comes the ability to choose the best conflict mode for the scenario.

Collaborating generally produces superior decisions, particularly when applied to complex issues. However, it requires time, so it may be wise to reserve it for critical situations where a win-win outcome or innovative solution is required.

On the other hand, when there is insufficient information to make a fair decision, avoiding the conflict temporarily can be advantageous. It provides an opportunity to gather data, research or feedback from other stakeholders. Once everyone is better informed, the conflict can be revisited with a higher likelihood of a productive outcome, minimizing the risk of decisions based on misunderstandings.

Even when the optimal mode is selected, it must be implemented in an effective way. This involves giving a team the skills required to successfully navigate conflict. These might include the ability to:

  • Differentiate between people’s concerns — what they are primarily motivated to achieve — and what positions or actions they wish to take to satisfy their concerns.

  • Frame an issue in terms of those concerns versus the positions the parties involved initially take. Collaboration, for example, requires uncovering the concerns beneath people’s positions.

  • Display a balance of firmness and flexibility when trying to collaborate or accommodate, especially when the other party is stuck in the Competing mode.

Reducing the cost of conflict

One final consideration is that even when the conflict mode is the best for the situation, it still comes at a cost. Effective conflict management involves minimizing this cost.

If a leader dismisses significant fallout from a conflict as simply the price of making the right decision, this is a clue that they lack conflict skills. A skilled leader can operate in the Competing mode without provoking co-workers, in the Avoiding mode while not appearing to be ducking important issues, or in the Accommodating mode without looking like a pushover.

Related: How to Successfully Manage and Resolve Conflict on Your Team

In conclusion, organizations with mature conflict management get to this point because top leadership has made this a priority and invested in their conflict management culture and employees. Such organizations encourage a willingness to entertain opposing views and the free exchange of information, and top leadership sets an example by developing and displaying their own conflict management skills.

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