Managing conflict in the workplace is an essential leadership skill. Here are three strategies effective leaders use to manage conflict.
- Seek constructive conflict
Too often constructive aspects of conflict that can enhance team cohesion and decision making are overshadowed by destructive elements. The primary source of destructive conflicts in any context is negative emotions. By nature, we are emotional beings and when someone disagrees with us, we are wired to see it as an attack and respond defensively. There’s also a concept in sociology called the “Fundamental Attribution Error” that is constantly at play in our interactions with others; this refers to a tendency to attribute our own behavior to external situational factors outside of our control while attributing another’s actions to flaws in their character or personality. In other words, we give ourselves a break by thinking “I’m having a bad day” or “I didn’t get enough sleep last night” while suggesting the inappropriate behaviors of another person is because they are lazy, mean, cowardly, or selfish.
To reduce the destructive consequences of emotional responses and the fundamental attribution error when conflicts emerge, three actionable behaviors have helped me to improve and maintain trusting relationships with co-workers when conflicts emerge: ¬
- Be respectful: In addition to embracing our core value of respect, it’s helpful to establish some group norms (aka ground-rules) that promote respectful interactions. Note: group members appreciate having a voice in these norms.
- Care for each other: One way to promote caring amongst your co-workers is to use periodic icebreakers (discussion prompts to get to know each other better) and social events (coffee breaks; group lunches, etc).
- Focus on facts: Most conflicts begin with someone’s opinion (i.e., “Jim’s plan will never work!”). The best leaders, and coaches, probe to discover the facts that led to that opinion (i.e., “What about Jim’s plan has you concerned?”). With all the facts on the table, we can approach our conflicts in a more rational and constructive way. I’ve found that writing only factual information (not opinions) on a whiteboard or shared electronic file, so everyone can see it at the same time, often helps the group generate a unifying solution.
- Have a prevention mindset
When dealing with destructive aspects of conflict, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. If you wait until negative emotions emerge, it’s often too late to fix the relational damage. Many of us have heard of Bruce’s Tuckman’s Form/Storm/Norm/Perform/Adjourn Model of group development; knowing that conflict is likely to occur in our team’s future, especially during the Storming Phase, it’s a good idea to prepare for it during the Forming Phase.
Normalizing something stressful and awkward can make it easier to handle when it occurs. That means, if we want to encourage constructive conflicts, talking about conflict before it happens can help a group normalize its occurrence. creating protocols and ground rules about how to handle conflicts as part of the forming phase can help when conflicts do arise later in the process.
When I know I’ll be entering into a controversial topic likely to induce points of tension and conflict, it can be helpful to “get the RED out” before the meeting happens. RED stands for Rules, Expectations, and Demands.
- Rules: Here are some ground rules I’ve used in the past to prevent destructive conflicts: 1) No personal attacks; 2) One person speaks at a time; 3) Ideas have no rank; 4) Attack the problem, not each other; 5) “Seek first to understand, then to be understood;” that is, balance inquiry with advocacy; 6) Stay curious; 7) No one speaks twice until everyone has spoken once. Do note that you wouldn’t adopt all these ground rules and it’s important that established groups customize their ground rules to fit the group culture.
- Expectations: Before the meeting, ask participants what they expect to get out of the discussion. Create an agenda based on what people expect to talk about and stick to it. If extraneous topics arise, park them in a "parking lot” document for another time.
- Demands: Before the meeting, ask participants about the non-negotiable elements of the topic they’ll be discussing. For example: Is anything “off the table?” or “Are there certain areas where you won’t or can’t budge? This will put some boundaries on the agenda before the meeting even starts.
- Think longer term
In our command-and-control military environment, it’s often tempting for leaders to make decisions unilaterally. In high-risk operational environments this is often necessary. Too often however, the fastest decisions aren’t the best or most lasting. Leaders will constrain themselves by saying they don’t have the time.
Even though he was the most senior person in our organization, our former Commandant, Admiral Thad Allen often promoted the concept of “truth to power” when he spoke. Although, he explained, it takes time to hear different perspectives, Admiral Allen invited disagreements because they challenged his thinking and, in the long run, they led to better decisions.
Similarly, in my own experience, while inviting disagreement into the decision-making process adds time on the front end, it often reduces biases and the time it takes for a group to deploy decisions. When you bring other perspectives in, it allows you to work through some of the subsequent challenges you hadn’t considered earlier. This process also promotes shared decision-making, and in turn, people are more likely to become better “ambassadors” of that decision as it gets deployed. With more knowledge about how the decision was made, group members can better explain the rationale to their co-workers.
- To dive deeper into conflict management, I recommend, “Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When the Stakes are High,” by Kerry Patterson, a Coast Guard veteran, and his team.
- Getting the RED out is a concept from the book “Taming the Conflict Dragon” by Alex Hiam.
- Check out this website to learn about your personal conflict style.
- Read this article to learn more about the fundamental attribution error
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