Conflict Can Be Good

Process issues, roles and responsibilities, organizational direction, external pressures and interpersonal problems all create conflict. While each area may call for different strategies to identify and address the root cause of these conflicts, there are four best practices talent leaders can use to guide effective resolution in the workplace.

Process Conflict: Process conflict commonly arises when two departments, teams or groups interact on a process. They may view the process differently, disagree on how it should be accomplished or point fingers rather than communicating effectively when problems arise. For example, at a global manufacturer of heavy lifting equipment, three shifts were involved in the production of a machine, which often suffered from poor quality or low production rates. No standard process existed to build the machine, and each shift believed its approach was best. If one shift ended before the product was completed, the next group would either send the machine through without completing it – which resulted in poor quality – or take it apart and rebuild it – which slowed production. To identify the root cause of process conflict, examine the process controls in place and how employees interact with them. Get teams or individuals to collaborate to define the process more effectively and establish communication channels to address problems.
Role Conflict: Conflict surrounding roles and responsibilities is especially common during or immediately following organizational change, particularly restructurings. People may be unclear on who is responsible for which decisions and outputs. For example, after an international strategic business consulting firm restructured its managerial staff, an individual who formerly managed two key customer segments was unwilling to relinquish all the responsibility to the new manager. He continued to question staff and issue orders while his replacement was trying to set a new direction. With two managers giving input, employees were stuck in the middle, which created conflict among them as well as between the managers. To identify the root cause of a role conflict, each party needs to examine his or her responsibilities as well as the other person’s. One or both may need to change their perception, and then they will need to collaborate to clarify who will handle what.

Directional Conflict: Directional conflict arises when organizations are forced to rethink their strategies and focus on shorter-term activities, as many did during the recent economic downturn. Employees may not know how to prioritize long-term versus short-term needs, or one department may work tactically while another remains strategic. For example, a regional insurance brokerage, representing several prominent insurance providers, was developing a succession plan and selected several managers to be groomed as next-generation leaders. This action resulted in directional conflict because the managers were unclear whether to focus on meeting their short-term goals or on the longer term succession efforts. To identify the root cause of directional conflict, individual employees should ask themselves: What do I believe our direction is or should be? Is that aligned with what others are saying? What are senior managers saying? Answering these questions will enable individuals to change their own direction if necessary and help others change theirs.

External Conflict: External conflict arises when pressures from customers or other stakeholders impact internal decisions. Recent economic challenges compelled organizations to adjust and adapt, for example, by lowering prices while providing enhanced customer service. Sales or customer service personnel advocating for customers’ needs may have come into conflict with operations trying to meet internal goals. For example, a health care software company was pushing to bring a new product to market. Sales and customer service employees continued to bring customer input to the programming group, which did its best to incorporate the ideas into the product. As the requests continued to come in, it extended the development process beyond the planned release date. When management finally decided to release the product without further enhancements, additional conflict arose because customers now complained that their input was not incorporated. To identify the root cause of external conflict, ask if anyone internally has the control to resolve the problem. It may be possible to create a can-do list, which may answer questions such as: What can we do to address the external demand? The solution might involve collaboration among several departments to adjust to the external pressures more effectively.

Interpersonal Conflict: Although poor chemistry between individuals can exist, most interpersonal conflict tends to grow from the other four sources of conflict. For instance, when two managers attempt to direct the same department or when employees see external circumstances differently, interpersonal conflict builds. However, at times, genuine interpersonal conflict may exist. For instance, a national business services firm hired a new vice president whom the divisional personnel disliked because they felt he was not as open and direct as his predecessor. This created conflict between the leader and the team, which affected performance. To find the root cause of interpersonal conflict, look for a particular bias or prejudice. Can negative emotions be overcome? An open, direct conversation is always the best way to bring issues out in the open and begin working on a resolution.

There are four key steps to reduce and manage conflict.

  1. Align on shared values and direction. Without a sense of commonality of vision and direction, underlying frustration, fear and conflict will fester despite attempts at resolution. Ask questions such as: Are we on the same page? Are we pursuing the same direction?
  2. Take personal ownership. No one wants to be wrong. Once people stop assigning blame and responsibility to others, resolution becomes easier.
  3. Deal with facts first, emotions second. Identify the problem and root cause of the conflict, and find a way to resolve the issue. With a resolution in place, handle the emotional component. If emotional issues are left unresolved, people won’t buy into the solution.
  4. Build collaboration. Without this step, people will resume work without interacting. This will renew the conflict. Align groups and departments to prevent future problems. Building trust is at the core of conflict resolution. Lack of trust is also a common reason why conflicts arise in the first place. With mutual trust, problems tend to be resolved quickly without escalating into conflict.

To rebuild lost trust, follow these steps:

  1. Set the ego aside. Learn to say: It’s not about me; it’s about getting the best result. How can I interact with this individual at a human level to resolve the conflict?
  2. Review the situation honestly. Ask: What assumptions do I bring to the table, and are those the real facts or just temporary feelings? Is there really an issue, or am I reading too much into the situation? When people are feeling low, tired or emotionally drained, conflicts arise more quickly.
  3. Meet with the other party. Candidly explain the situation and how it creates a challenge or conflict. Ask for the other person’s perspective. What was he or she trying to accomplish and why? Listen intently to gather information without refuting each statement directly.
  4. Reach a decision. Determine whether trust has been broken and needs to be rebuilt or whether there was a simple misunderstanding that can be quickly clarified and resolved.
  5. If trust has been broken, begin rebuilding it immediately.
    Clearly articulate and share information on why the actions that broke trust were taken. Listen to the other person’s perspective and articulate your own based on facts, not personalities. Don’t tell the other person what to think, what the problem is and how to fix it. Listen and arrive at a resolution together.
  6. Reach an agreement. Once both parties have articulated their perspectives, agree on how to move forward to build trust.
  7. Honor agreements. Both parties have to hold up their end of the bargain. Do exactly what was promised or trust will fall to an even lower level. Continue to demonstrate trustworthiness day by day, activity by activity.

People tend to rely on status and position to handle conflicts. Both create mindsets that discourage people from taking personal responsibility for conflicts. However, while people may be unaccustomed to taking ownership of conflict and are uncomfortable about seeking out an opposing party directly, these steps are essential to resolve conflict and build trust.

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