Conflict is Inevitable – Manage It!

When two or more people interact for a long enough time, conflict happens. It’s inevitable.

In and around organizations, lots of people interact for lots of time. Yet few organizations devote resources to proactively managing conflict. Organizations can significantly reduce the hidden costs associated with conflict by building processes and systems to remove underlying causes of conflict.

When these underlying factors remain unaddressed conflict can lead to destruction. Unresolved conflict preys on peoples’ minds and distracts them from their most important tasks. They remember past conflicts and those memories may cause them to avoid contacts that can actually contribute to their success. Conflict turns the focus from long-term results and consequences to short-term issues.

Individuals in conflict don’t contribute well to the organization’s mission and strategy. They may resist taking actions that bring the conflict to the surface, potentially eroding their performance and creating unintended consequences. People may simply be going through the motions, or actively undermining the organization. The result can be decreased performance, increased risk, and financial loss for the organization. Unless they are directly involved, leaders rarely see conflict. Hence, these costs are hidden.

The following questions will help you discover how to address underlying conflict:

Are there perceived inequities in how people are treated? Inequities create jealousy that can trigger some to become uncooperative.

Are there problems with unclear communication? Perhaps the most common source of conflict is misperception about what others want or are doing. Lack of a clear communication process that holds all parties accountable for the timeliness, accuracy, completeness, and consistency of messages, breeds misunderstandings.

What systems and cultural characteristics enable conflict? A cultural attitude that conflict is abnormal and therefore someone is wrong in some way, suppresses resolution and creates win-lose situations.

Can people get together in a non-threatening environment to work out a conflict? The greatest barrier to conflict resolution is not having a established means to work together to find a solution.

Once you have determined the contribution of these or other underlying causes, there are several strategies to prevent and resolve conflict.

Develop a value statement about conflict. A statement which recognizes the value of conflict and the importance of seeking mutual satisfying solutions tells employees that being in conflict is not abnormal and that the organization supports them in their efforts to find a resolution.

Train everyone, starting with the leaders, in a simple, effective conflict resolution process. The process needs to be nonjudgmental and have clear rules of engagement, like listening without interruption. It should require the problem to be stated in a manner that avoids defensiveness. The underlying approach should be “let’s solve the problem together” rather than “I’m right and you’re wrong.” The parties should be encouraged to look for organizational systems, processes and cultural variables that are part of the problem. At the same time individuals must acknowledge their responsibility in contributing to the conflict.

Create a conflict log. One of the most powerful tools in addressing underlying issues is a conflict log that records the identified underlying causes, solutions and outcome agreements. This central record permits people to look for patterns, discover sources that give rise to conflicts, and implement actions to deal with them.

Help people create work-life agreements. Two people who work closely can start by asking “What words would I use to describe our relationship right now? How would I describe our ideal working relationship? What am I willing to do to achieve this ideal relationship?” Then, both people can bring what they have written to a meeting, discover how much their ideals have in common, and write an agreement on how they will behave and the actions they will take to make things better. One action should be to bring forward conflicts as soon as they appear.

The costs of unresolved conflict mount insidiously. Because it rarely comes to the surface people are often unaware of how it detracts from their performance. An organization has a great deal to gain from managing conflict. Putting systems in place to bring it to the surface early, training people in its resolution, and providing the means to resolve conflict are important strategies. Discovering underlying sources and eliminating them, creating an attitude that conflict is normal, and encouraging people to address it quickly and effectively are powerful tools to prevent the damage which unresolved conflict can do to your organization.

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June 1, 2010

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