13 Steps for Navigating Conflict Effectively

by Carl Robinson, Ph.D., © 2009

Conflict is natural in any vibrant organization. A lack of conflict is not a good sign and can signify apathy, conflict avoidance or passive aggression – deadly sins for organizations.  Effective people and organizations learn how to navigate conflict rather than avoid it.  In fact, creative solutions to complex and challenging problems come from tolerating and constructively managing civilized disagreements. 

Below are 13 tips for effectively managing conflict:

1. Be proactive.  Head off problems before they snowball.  Ask your peers or subordinates, “How are we doing?  What can I do to improve the effectiveness of our relationship?”

2. Establish procedures for resolving conflicts in advance. In truly creative settings, conflict is inevitable and necessary so plan for effectively managing conflict.  Think of the procedures as ground rules for behavior within and outside the team.  Don’t wait for the conflict to happen before establishing ground rules for navigating conflict. 

3. Deal directly with others. Whenever possible, don’t bring in a third party (generally one’s boss). This is called triangulation. Triangulation is an attempt to avoid responsibility by using the third party to join your side on an issue. Triangulating keeps people from resolving issues amongst themselves. 

4. As an executive in charge, be aware of unintentionally feeding conflict between executives. Encourage and insist on direct dealings between an executive and their peers as a prerequisite for being on an executive team.  Coming to you must be the last resort.

5. Keep a private disagreement private.  Making private disagreements public, increases the tension around the issues because people become more defensive the more public an issue becomes.

6. Discuss the issue only when those involved are present. Stop the discussion immediately if someone brings up an issue that involves another team member not at the meeting. The team owes it to the missing team member to postpone further debate until he or she can be present.

7. Focus on the facts.  Everyone involved in a conflict needs to be prepared to discuss the issue armed with the facts.  Being prepared encourages people to debate critical issues based on data rather than feelings.  Ignorance is not bliss.  Encourage informed discussion of critical issues. 

8. Generate multiple options/alternatives when conflict arises. Consider four or five options at once—even some you don’t support.  Multiple alternatives help diffuses conflict and reduces the chance that team members will polarize around just two possibilities.

9. To improve team effectiveness and to reduce unnecessary conflict, create team alignment by attending to and clarifying four specific areas. 

  • Strategic and operational goals;
  • Team members’ roles and responsibilities;
  • Ground rules for group behavior; and
  • Understanding and accepting differing personal styles of interaction.

10.  Hold a formal session with your team about alignment. Determine your people’s clarity about the four alignment areas from tip 8. Provide any necessary information needed to remove ambiguity.

11.  Identify who has decision-making authority upfront. This helps reduce conflict from happening or at least allows people to say with authority, "This is my call."

12.  Diversity helps.  Develop the capability to understand and respond to differing personality styles. People respond best when they feel they are understood and not looked down on.  Develop tolerance and respect for differences.  Diversity of opinions and styles breeds a better outcome – Just like diversity in Nature does.

13.   When navigating conflict, seek consensus.  However, if the parties involved can’t reach consensus, the most relevant senior leader should make the decision, guided by input from the others.  This tactic fosters a sense of fairness and equity.

Most people wait until contentious issues escalate and become a bigger problem before attempting to deal with them.  That’s called conflict avoidance or burying your head in the sand.  Effective leaders help their employees become adept at navigating conflict.  Imagine a vibrant workplace where people debate important issues in a civil manner.   It doesn’t happen by accident.  It takes practice and discipline.