Conflict is a natural part of the human experience. So too is the question of how to deal with it. As business leaders it becomes vital that we learn how to resolve conflict.
At least once in a meeting, we’ve heard the proclamation that someone “enjoys conflict” or that they are “not afraid of arguing” with others. But it does seem like in most cases where there is conflict, a forcing function is at play which could leave us feeling like we have no choice but to engage.
That forcing function is an evolutionary trait from Home Sapiens, a self organizing species. And when we place business constructs on top of our natural instinct to associate with each other, conflicts can arise.
In its natural state a business pursues the transformation of energy from resources to something valuable that people are willing to pay for.
A landscaping business for instance, transforms a worker’s energy into beautiful landscapes that happy homeowners pay for.
A coffee producer transforms the worker’s picking, roasting and packing energy into delicious coffee products for connoisseurs to enjoy.
A software business transforms the software developer’s coding energy into a SaaS product or service that acquires customers and keeps them engaged.
For a business to function it needs people. Whether one person or a thousand, human beings are the conduits of energy that when flowing in harmony can create the most beautiful things.
In a state of harmony, humans form systems designed to increase productivity, or they form teams to leverage skills and in almost all cases, they create leaders to make sure that the business meets its objectives.
Conversely, when there is dissonance, the business leaks energy, teams lose their drive and humans start to look elsewhere for more peaceful ways to spend their energy.
In this article, you’ll learn all about conflict, why it happens, and how to effectively resolve it when it inevitably arises through the 5 main conflict resolution models.
What is Conflict and Why Does It Happen?
As we spend our energy to create, perform and deliver within our organizations, we may find ourselves at odds with someone else’s energy to do the same. These clash points of opposing energies could take on the form of polite disagreements, forceful conversations or all out arguments.
Within a business environment that holds trust and safety for it’s people to disagree, the mess gets cleaned up quickly and everyone moves on for the greater good. When, however, the disagreement is protracted, the parties involved are considered to be in conflict.
When in conflict, entitlement to one’s own viewpoint grows stronger which deepens the resolve for parties to hold their ground. This causes incredible damage especially at the executive level.
The energy consumed to nourish the conflict deprives not only the individuals involved, but also the departments they lead from producing the growth that a business needs to benefit all employees.
In the daily hustle and bustle of executive leadership, many planned meetings are held and many impromptu conversations take place.
Two things are a certainty: we don’t always think before we speak, and we don’t always completely understand what was said. In the absence of clarification or time to follow up, miscommunication can occur.
What I find most interesting about miscommunication is the subtlety with which it enters the room. Two people participate in the exact same conversation but walk away with two different ideas of what was agreed to.
Like with any misunderstanding, if it gets cleared up quickly with grace for each other, this could lead to a deepening of vulnerability and honesty. But if the miscommunication happens inside of a relationship where trust is absent, or where the hierarchy is unforgiving, resentment may grow which could lead to conflict.
You’ll notice that the situation has escalated when the attempt at resolution is no longer about the miscommunication, but rather about the intent and scrutiny of each other’s motives.
As humans we want to feel valued. We value each other when we show appreciation or acknowledge each other for the work that’s been done.
In a leadership role, we are often unseen for the work that gets done behind the scenes. As leaders we are told to celebrate this unseen advocacy for our people especially when we are able to shine the spotlight on our colleagues without taking any credit for the work that we did to make their success happen. I like to say that when we feel strong, we’re able to regulate ourselves and draw appreciation from our own sources.
But when we are exhausted, it gets harder to see our efforts go unnoticed or see our equity drift away in favor of someone else’s accolades. We all tend to see a version of ourselves through others eyes and when we crave what we can’t have, the feeling of unfairness creeps in.
This creates an internal conflict that could leave the party we have an issue with completely flabbergasted with where we are coming from. Over time if this is not resolved, it gets easier to quit your job than to try clawing your way back to a healthy relationship.
Lack of Management
Management almost always requires more effort than we realize. And in the absence of that effort, we open ourselves up to disagreements that never get surfaced.
Let’s take a look at what happens when we hire someone. When we bring people into our organizations, we do so because they have an expertise that will enhance our teams. We tend to want to get out of their way as quickly as possible so that they can do their magic.
This is a mistake. More effort than we think, is required to set someone up to succeed inside of the culture of our teams. This effort could take on the form of extra check-ins with individuals to make sure they’re heard on any concerns but also to restate the purpose and function of the team. Change management takes a lot of effort and so does all people management.
The leader however craves for their efforts to translate into teams that become autonomous and hit cruise control. We see this as a sign of contentment in our people, that our processes are well documented and our deliveries optimized to precisely hit the goals we set forth.
What we don’t realize however is that our absence is the perfect catalyst for conflict. We carry not only the mantle of leadership that mandates accountability from our people towards you but also the skills of awareness that allows for that gentle nudge when you see unspoken disagreements between your people.
Bad Work Environment
As leaders, by our actions and also our inactions, we invest heavily in our work environments. We also read up on how other companies create cultures that we use as blueprints for ours.
There isn’t a blog post or best selling book in the world that serves as a substitute for the work we have to put into creating a great work environment tailored to our people and our mission.
Who remembers the backlash against the standup meeting where introverts were terrified to speak up? Or how about unlimited vacations where employees were terrified to actually go on vacation for fear of what that would say about their commitment?
Why would any person want to be in a bad work environment? I would consider myself lucky if my colleagues actually chose to enter into conflict with me in a bad environment because this would indicate to me that they actually cared. For the rest, they are most likely looking for other jobs.
What Happens With Unresolved Conflict in the Workplace?
Environmental dissonance is the worst because when disagreements reach the tipping point, the ensuing conflict consumes like a wildfire. It leaves no person unscathed.
Everything seemed OK on the surface with people finding support in each other when they had to deal with bad management decisions or a deriding superior. When there are no tools in place to deal with disagreements in an open and safe environment, all Thanos has to do is snap his fingers and …, well, we all know what happens after that.
Unresolved conflict carries with it the potential to hurt not only those involved, but also the innocent bystanders to whom the disagreements may not have been such a big deal. The ugly thing about conflict is that it is not focused. It extrapolates. It hyperbolates.
To continue down the Avengers analogy, it’s like Thor without his hammer, grabbing at anything that he can throw at his opponent. Conflict in and of itself is not a bad thing. It’s the hardening of hearts that don’t desire a deepening in relationship that carries with it the tragedy of missed opportunity.
The 5 Conflict Resolution Models
When a disagreement is carried into the conflict stage, there are several ways to deal with it. Let’s take a look at the different models as developed by Thomas & Kilmann and when to use each one.
Most people I know fall into this category. We want to avoid conflict. It feels unpleasant and consumes our much treasured free time with worry. If you consider that you can create the path you’re on, you can choose to have that path lead into the conflict, or with great shrewdness, you can bend your path away from the doomed encounter.
You can do this by staying out of any conversations with colleagues that take sides either one way or the other. It will require a “hard no” from you and could leave you feeling like an outsider, but in many cases this will serve you well in the long run. If you are at the heart of the disagreement and you’d prefer to avoid conflict, you would need to find that happy place in your heart that adequately compartmentalizes the disagreement. This means you are listening more than you speak and you pursue every avenue towards the bigger picture and overall empathy.
When to Use This Method
Avoid conflict when there is a larger issue at play or where your opinion doesn’t carry much weight. Ask yourself whether this is a “storm in a teacup” and look for other ways to exert your energy in a positive way. Also take note of how often you use this strategy. An over reliance on avoiding conflict could be bad for your career as conflict is a catalyst to personal growth.
Unlike avoidance, accommodating conflict as a strategy carries with it a distinct capitulation. It is a decision that gets made to give in to the other person. While this approach can lead to a moment of reconciliation that draws people into a deeper understanding of each other, it can also lead to future resentment.
Be sure that you are indeed authentic in your accommodation of the other person’s viewpoint. If you get the sense that you are falling on your sword, I would be careful of using this strategy.
When to Use This Method
As a leader this is a moment whereby you can strengthen your employee’s sense of value they create in the company. It is also a great time for personal reflection.
Consider whether your viewpoint is worth arguing over and what the long term consequences would be if you were to win the argument. If going against your wishes feels like an issue of leadership or your ego, this strategy is a good antidote for that.
When we compete, we plan to win. It would be good to recognize this when the only way to resolve this conflict is through either party winning. This could be a great way to solve conflict in environments where outcomes aren’t taken personally and the rules of engagement are clearly understood.
I always imagine myself in a tennis match where after a hard fought duel, I walk up to the net to congratulate my opponent on their win. If I am able to see that, then I enjoy the battle.
When to Use This Method
Only use this method when there is a playful sense about the conflict. Name the situation, check in with each other regularly and constantly reassure each other that regardless of outcome, the relationship is intact.
When we’re at the negotiating table, a fair outcome is when both parties walk away feeling like they gained something in return for giving up something. A conflict that ends in compromise carries the same sense of gain and loss.
Resolving conflict this way can be super healthy for the business because after the sparring, the parties were able to come to a compromise. This sets us up for better conflict handling in the future. Everyone wins.
When to Use This Method
Finding a compromise usually comes after an intense time of competing. I would recommend you find a compromise when the sense is that pushing for a win isn’t worth what it will do to the relationship.
Compromise is also made possible when we are able to fully understand the other person’s viewpoint and how that could be a good outcome as well.
This is by far my most favorite way to resolve conflicts. It states that nobody is wrong and that everyone wants the same good thing for the company. It establishes a partnership between the two parties and commits mutual energy towards finding a solution.
When to Use This Method
I would almost always use this method if I had the choice. It doesn’t work so well when there is an inequitable relationship, or lack of trust. Collaboration is harder when there is strong ego or vested interest in the outcome.
This can be incredibly powerful when those involved have respect for each other and want to learn from each other.
Repeat after me. Everything is going to be just fine. Recognize that conflict occurs naturally wherever there is a grouping of humans. The pulse within the group will create emotional responses within its participants. Sometimes these responses clash with each other.
If you have a disposition of resolution, you will almost certainly find one of these 5 strategies useful. If however resolution is not at the forefront of your engagement, get yourself a pair of boxing gloves. Things might get ugly.