Don't Eliminate Conflict in Business Ė Manage It!

Carl Robinson, Ph.D., copyright 2008

One of the most important ingredients for success in any business is to hire smart, confident and assertive people. However, when you do, you're sure to have conflict. It's impossible to put a bunch of smart, assertive people together without them bumping heads. In fact, if there isn't conflict, then something may be very wrong. Nothing creative ever happens in boring, non-confrontational environments. The trick is to help all those smart people navigate conflict effectively.

What Causes Conflict?

No two human beings - not even identical twins - are alike in all aspects. Because we are all unique, we all have differences with one another. We all bring to relationships different:

  • Wants and needs
  • Values and beliefs
  • Assumptions and interpretations
  • Degrees of knowledge and information
  • Expectations
  • Cultures

When smart people interact they will have inevitable differences in opinions but that does not mean they have to end up fighting destructively. One of the main reasons people end up fighting is that they take the differences in ideas too personally. It then becomes very difficult to discuss and evaluate the ideas or "opinions" objectively because we end up defending our "selves" rather than debating the merit of our ideas. You know someone is taking it too personally if it feels like they are fighting for their life.

Another reason for conflict is that people think and communicate differently - they have stylistic clashes. For example, we all know people who are analytical thinkers, who think in a linear fashion and then there are people who are more intuitive, who seem to develop ideas that simply don't make logical sense. Entrepreneurs, for example, tend to be more intuitive yet, to successfully raise money for their ideas, they have to learn how to communicate a logical business case once they've captured the emotional interest of investors.

Unfortunately, each type often refers to the other's thinking style in pejorative terms. Analytical people call intuitive thinkers, "flakey" and intuitives will call analytical thinkers too "black and white" or "dense."

How people deal with conflict

There are four ways most people handle conflict:

  1. Victim. They do and say nothing directly, act powerless and then complain to others.
  2. Avoidance. They keep away from the conflict.
  3. Change. They change their own opinion either because they found sufficient reasons to do so or simply to avoid continued confrontation.
  4. Assertively confront. They address the issue openly, candidly and objectively by communicating with the other party. Confronting conflict head-on is one of the hardest things for people to do. "Most people believe that conflict is caused by difficult, quarrelsome people who simply can't or won't change; that successful teamwork requires a conflict-free environment; that people can't separate disagreements over business issues from personal attacks; and that confronting another person or group always leaves bad feelings."* So most people avoid confronting assertively because they feel there is no point; it will be fruitless to do so.

What you can do. Strategies for senior teams:

"Effective conflict management begins with alignment. To operate at peak performance, a senior team must be aligned and reach agreement in four distinct areas:

  1. Strategic and operational goals must be clear, specific and agreed-upon.
  2. Team members' roles must be carefully defined so each member knows exactly what he or she is responsible for and what he or she is authorized to do.
  3. Ground rules must be established to guide group behavior.
  4. The broad range of personal styles that team members use when interacting with one another must be understood and managed."*

Individual Roles and Accountability (1 & 2)

One approach to dealing with lack of alignment is to hold a formal session on the subject. I recently worked with a senior team who was experiencing significant destructive conflict. Before we started working together, I asked the following two questions: "How clear are you about your role and accountability on the team?" and "How clear are you about your role and accountability in the organization?" It wasn't surprising to learn that many people on the team could not answer those questions well. They never discussed what they expected from one another. Helping people understand each other's roles and clarifying who has decision making authority helps reduce conflict or at least allows people to say with authority, "This is my call."

Ground Rules of Conduct (3)

Being clear about roles and goals will get you only so far. Procedures for resolving conflicts - think of them as ground rules for behavior both within the team and outside of it - are key elements in the conflict-management process. Some examples follow:

  • Don't "triangulate." Triangulation is bringing an issue to a third-party mediator for resolution. Triangulation is an attempt to avoid responsibility by using the third party to handle an issue that should be resolved head-on between two people. As a consultant, I'm frequently working to get conflicting parties to work through their conflict directly without using me as an intermediary. Sure, it easier to have the consultant referee but the participants don't learn how to resolve issues amongst themselves that way. Instead, I try to coach them through the conflict from the sidelines and only get into it directly if they simply can't work it out themselves.

  • Don't recruit supporters to your point of view. Rather than attempt to resolve the disagreement, some people try to win other people over to their side, and they make private disagreements public by bad-mouthing anyone who dares to contradict them.

  • Resolve it or let it go. The longer conflict remains unresolved, the greater the chance that it will grow, spreading negativity throughout the team and often down through the organization. One method to facilitate this option is for the boss to set a time limit to resolve the issues. If the combatants cannot resolve the issue by the deadline, they must drop the issue and move on.

  • Don't discuss the issue in absentia. At a team meeting, if someone brings up an issue that involves another team member who is not at the meeting, the discussion should stop immediately. The team owes it to the missing team member to postpone further debate until he or she can be present.

Understanding and using personality styles (4)

Developing the capability to understand and respond to differing personality styles is very important but easily mangled. Many executives have participated in personality typing trainings such as the DISC or Myers Briggs (MBTI). Those tools are helpful mostly because they highlight the fact that people are different and you need to adjust your communication and management styles to accommodate those differences if you want to effectively influence them. However, there is a very real danger in using those systems. People, unfortunately, frequently end up pigeon holing each other into categories, e.g., Heís a ďredĒ and therefore he will ALWAYS think and act like _____." Once youíve pigeon holed someone, you limit them.

As a psychologist, Iíve been working with people for over 30 years and I am constantly surprised as to how hard it really is to understand others and how frequently Iím pleasantly surprised. Iíve been most successful at working with others when Iíve followed Mark Twainís aphorism, ďThe smartest man Iíve ever known is my tailor. He measures me anew each time he meets me.Ē

Do your best to really get to know whom you work with and manage so that you can understand their unique talents, needs and desires and then look for ways to align those three ingredients with yours and those of the organization. If you can understand the other personís agenda, youíll be better able to find a way to navigate the inevitable conflicts that arise by finding mutually beneficial and acceptable solutions.

* Thanks to Howard Guttman, "When Goliaths Clash," published by American Management Association