“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.

By Kate Tojeiro

It is my observation that leaders spend an extraordinary amount of time firefighting and particularly fires of an interpersonal nature! It is not uncommon for a CEO to spend 20 percent of his or her time managing conflict of one degree or another.

Conflict is not something to be suppressed in a company and it certainly shouldn’t be ignored. Left alone, conflict and interpersonal stress just gets worse. Whilst a potentially attractive option, eliminating conflict is not the answer either! Companies that try that approach are as doomed to failure as those who stick their head in the sand.

There is a strong link between the ability to resolve conflict effectively and being perceived as an effective leader. According to research, leaders who resolve conflict by perspective taking, creating solutions, expressing emotions and reaching out are considered to be more effective. Executives who demonstrate these behaviours are perceived as achievers and therefore often more likely to get promotion.

Understanding the sources of difference can provide insight into what’s driving a conflict and allow us to step back and look at the situation a little more objectively. Taking the time to understand basic differences can often pre-empt more serious conflicts.

Expectations and Assumptions

People have very different needs, values, beliefs, assumptions, experience levels and expectations. When individuals form expectations for the future (based on their past experiences) their perceptions of reality are widely different and conflict can arise.

It is necessary and helpful to explore expectations, assumptions, underlying values and priorities. This can be done openly in group or team sessions, individually by a manager or coach, or in small groups of conflicted individuals.

Inquiring about values can help clarify issues. People very rarely get upset by things that don’t matter to them. Every conflict or problem is usually accompanied by an underlying value that is not being satisfied. Asking questions such as, “What’s really important here?” often leads to uncovering competing values and conflicting priorities. Creating dialogue by asking the right questions is the first step toward managing conflict.

Executive Sources of Conflict

Executives, often unintentionally contribute to conflict by being unclear in their communications. Most of us have a tendency to avoid conflict. We may sometimes discuss something by covering all angles to avoid offending someone and end up giving mixed messages. We hope the issues will miraculously sort themselves out! At its worst, this communication style leads to increased conflict; at best, to a culture of non-commitment.

The freedom to question and to confront is crucial but often inadequate. To overcome barriers to open and forthright communications, people must learn new skills in order to ask powerful questions.

This could call for a professionally trained coach or consultant, external to the organization, who is unbiased and can speak freely. Executives may be too close to a given situation to see their communications blunders!

Company Conflict

What conditions act as fervent breeding grounds for conflict? A company with a strict hierarchy and an authoritarian leadership culture is fertile ground for conflict. Usually such places have a strong ‘gossip culture’ because open communications are not encouraged.

Change itself can destabilize organisations. People become cautious, resistant and potentially defensive when they are moved out of their comfort zones. Companies that have been involved in mergers and/or acquisitions, for example, experience more conflict. Rapidly changing environments create a ripe atmosphere for stress, anxiety and conflict. While change is inevitable, understanding and managing its impact on people is critical to its success.

A few ideas on how to deal with conflict:

1. You can play the victim and sulk! You can ‘witter on’ and complain to those who will listen and create alliances against the offending party. This rarely works, although sadly many companies have people actively engaged in such passive-aggressive behaviours rather than addressing conflict directly (it often appears easier!).

2. You can walk away either physically or by emotionally and mentally disengaging. This could entail walking out of a volatile meeting, moving to a new unit or team, or quitting the completely! A Gallup survey reported that at any one time as many as 19 percent of an organization’s employees are actively disengaged. Worse yet, over half (55 percent) are not engaged, but simply putting in time. Hmm — not good reading.

3. You could change your behaviour? This is an option not oft considered because individuals sometimes see it as acquiescing. If it is a personal conflict of some sort which focuses around one’s core values it can feel as tantamount to failure. For others who are capable of looking at win-win possibilities, however, this option can throw open the door to innovative ways forward.

4. You can confront each other honestly, openly and candidly. While this is the preferred option, this is often difficult to put into practice. The reason is that people are often afraid of conflict and don’t know how to work through issues successfully. They lack the relevant knowledge and skills.

Every conversation is a means of developing trust and commitment. Asking powerful meaningful questions about what really matters results in true relationships. Conflict is averted when people have a chance to say what they really mean.

So, if you do anything this week, encourage an environment for open, honest, candid and productive communication. Good Luck!

Kate Tojeiro is an Executive Performance Coach at www.the-x-fusion.co.uk

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