Bright and energetic people, collaborating in and across teams, driving innovation in an agile organisation. The recipe for business success is also one for conflict, highlighting the need for conflict management.
Personalities and pressures in any company are enough to trigger clashes. Where change is continuous and rapid, that propensity increases. The interactions that spark creativity may almost as easily kindle more heated, explosive reactions.
Every organisation should have a toolkit for managing and resolving conflicts. Clear goals and job specs, codes of conduct and acceptable behaviour, and disciplinary procedures are essential but not sufficient. A high-performing business needs a conflict management system in keeping with its culture and purpose.
That is not to say that the most successful companies don’t experience conflicts. Nor that these don’t flare up in ways that can damage a brand. Staff walkouts at Google over its perceived mishandling of sexual harassment claims spring to mind. In 2019 a very different row gripped the digital behemoth over a change in policy on open information sharing that many employees saw as a betrayal of its corporate culture.
Culture has also played a part in Amazon’s fractious employee relations. Many attribute this to a belief that disagreements and blunt feedback will lead to better decisions and commitment than consensus-seeking.
A conflict resolution system should not be designed to remedy a particular instance, whether a departmental turf war or an individual’s grievance. A more holistic approach based on an agreed process and principles will be better received by the differing parties. Plus, better suited to tackling the variety of frictions that can occur in an organisation of many moving parts.
The conflict management and resolution process
A clear understanding of what each stakeholder needs and wants is essential in arriving at an acceptable outcome.
That requires active listening and open questioning to identify concerns and resentments that may be unspoken.
As the underlying causes and desired outcomes become apparent, they may point to a workable compromise, or at least, crystallise what one can and cannot concede.
You need a continued laser focus on potential solutions to not dwell on the problems and inflame the situation. Similarly, communications with stakeholders have to be clear, impartial and avoid emotive language.
Not every conflict is a zero-sum game. Many spawn creative solutions that strengthen rather than weaken the organisation and people’s working methods. But there will often be losers who may require closer support and attention if they accept the settlement.
Who should resolve conflicts?
The skills and techniques used in conflict resolution should be part of every manager’s toolkit, honed and sharpened through training and development. These include active listening, clear communication, negotiating and mediation.
A manager may also judge that specific conflicts between staff members are better resolved by the protagonists themselves rather than imposed – if possible and proves equitable. Other disputes may require mediation by an HR officer, or senior manager, depending on the scope and scale of the problem. External mediation can offer the advantages of impartiality, fresh perspective, and specialist expertise. Limiting the amount of leadership time diverted from core business priorities is another consideration.
With a clear-eyed recognition that conflicts are inevitable, a proactive organisation will be ready to defuse them before morale or performance suffer. If not, the conflict in question should be the catalyst for a collaborative process to resolve the current and future disputes.
Businesses need their people to collaborate to solve complex problems. When that collaboration breaks down, they certainly have a problem that urgently needs fixing.
The reflection is often that we must ensure people are developed and aware enough to see and support conflict within their organisation. Authentic and empathetic leadership is a fantastic way of being more personally aware to support those around you.
Food for thought!