Conflict is a basic and inevitable part of the human experience.
Workplace conflicts have been around as long as workplaces have.
Sometimes we even experience conflict within ourselves that we must resolve. Most of the time, we think about conflict as between two or more people, between two groups, or in existing in multiple directions within a group. Without conflict, we wouldn’t have forward progress, changes in perspective, or even movie plots. There’s no way to completely avoid it in this life.
While people generally don’t like conflict, a total lack of conflict often signals the absence of effective interaction, and that’s not good either. Avoiding conflict isn’t effective except in the cases of very minor conflicts where the outcomes don’t matter very much. Leaders who avoid conflict themselves and who quash any conflicts within their teams do themselves and their teams a disservice in the long run.
It is possible to look at conflict as an opportunity, however. Conflict means that people have different perspectives and ideas, and in the workplace, these different perspectives and ideas often have to do with priorities and with how work is to be accomplished. Healthy conflict resolution can lead to better ways of doing things and ultimately benefit all parties involved.
Conflict is acceptable when it presents different points of view, and when it prevents harmful tendencies like “groupthink.” But constant conflict shouldn’t be normalized. Conflict as a standard operating procedure erodes trust and drives good people away. It’s important to know the difference between healthy conflict and unhealthy conflict (which is often about control and abuse of power). It’s also important for leaders to understand conflict resolution techniques and when to use them.
Why Conflict Resolution Is So Important
Unfortunately, there are leaders who dislike conflict so much that they avoid stepping in, even when conflict threatens goal attainment and team cohesiveness. This is a sure way to derail projects and watch good employees leave for better opportunities.
Sometimes it may feel to a leader like negotiating conflicts is similar to separating siblings fighting over a toy: something that shouldn’t happen in the first place. And while it can be tempting to ignore conflicts perceived to be minor or irrelevant, those conflicts are often based on something much deeper and more profound than what it looks like on the surface. A “silly” argument over having to ask for more printer paper may actually be about control and power, for example.
Conflicts that go unresolved, that are ignored or swept under the rug don’t actually go away. It can be easy for the busy leader to think that a conflict has been resolved because complaints have stopped or because everyone seems to be on task. Unfortunately, however, those unresolved conflicts have a way of re-erupting at inopportune moments, like when people are under stress about meeting an important deadline.
But conflict resolution is also important because it demonstrates that conflicts can be resolved. People can have differences of opinion and still work together effectively. It makes collaboration more likely, and it can ultimately strengthen teams because they’ve worked through tough times together and come out ahead.
What Conflict Resolution Is
Conflict resolution respects each participant’s point of view and does not tolerate personal attacks. Leadership and conflict resolution are about knowing when conflicting parties are capable of coming to a satisfactory solution by themselves and knowing when it’s time to step in.
Personal attacks and jumping to assign blame have no place in constructive conflict resolution.
Leaders with good conflict resolution skills know when to advise a complainant that they have the ability and the power to solve their own conflict, and they know when a conflict has grown to the point where they need to intervene. They perform any gathering of evidence in the strictest confidence.
When leaders must help resolve a conflict, they know that they must take as much of the emotion out of the process as possible. They must also encourage the people who are in conflict to try to separate their emotions from their reasoning to avoid making bad decisions.
Conflict resolution looks forward, not backward. It requires emotional intelligence and self-awareness and works best when all parties to the conflict have these attributes. Conflict resolution seeks to understand the situation, asks the right questions, and listens to what people have to say.
Finally, good conflict resolution builds accountability into the solution it arrives at. It doesn’t let anyone off the hook (except for victims of clear abuse of power) but holds everyone accountable for their part in solving the problem.
What Conflict Resolution Is Not
Conflict resolution is not thinking, “Oh, Jim and Jerry are arguing over the monthly financial report. They always do that.” Conflict resolution doesn’t belittle one person’s point of view or invalidate their very real feelings. It doesn’t excuse a party to a conflict by saying, “That’s just how she is,” or tell one party to ignore the actions of another party.
Leaders who resolve conflicts effectively don’t wait around, thinking the whole thing will blow over, until their hand is forced. They don’t confront people in front of others, try to “divide and conquer,” or play individuals off against one another.
In short, leaders who know how to resolve conflicts accept that conflict exists, but they don’t accept unacceptable behaviors, either in others or in themselves.
Effects of Good Conflict Resolution
When workplace conflicts are resolved quickly, fairly, and with accountability all around, you can actually end up with a stronger team. When people know their concerns are taken seriously, they develop more trust in the organization and their team. The result is a more positive corporate culture overall, which has benefits ranging from lower turnover to higher productivity and earnings.
When leadership and conflict resolution are intertwined, it sets a good example for teams. Team members may see that they have the power to overcome differences, and when they see good conflict resolution skills in action, they may adopt them for themselves, so that fewer conflicts bubble up to the level where they need intervention from someone higher up.
Resolving conflicts builds resilience, both on a personal and on a team level. That’s because successfully resolving conflict is a powerful experience. It draws on people’s empathy, makes them think, and requires that they work through something challenging. People are empowered when they constructively resolve conflicts, and the strength they gain is something they can call upon again and again in their professional lives.
Effects of Bad Conflict Resolution
If you have ever worked in a toxic workplace, you have almost certainly experienced the effects of poor conflict resolution. You probably also experienced low quality work (on the part of yourself or others), high turnover, and perhaps strained relationships with customers as well. A single toxic worker can cost a company tens of thousands of dollars, and once an entire team or workplace becomes toxic the results can be devastating.
Lack of appropriate and constructive conflict resolution can eventually turn an entire workplace toxic.
Bad conflict resolution can lead to problems like:
- Poor communication
- Low morale
- Proliferating gossip
- Verbal abuse
- A culture of blame
- People taking credit for work they didn’t do
- People who fail to do their part
Most of these problems can be avoided by practicing good conflict resolution and having those difficult conversations that are necessary when people or teams are at odds with one another.
How to Learn Conflict Resolution Skills
Many leadership development programs offer modules on conflict resolution. And many colleges and universities offer courses in conflict resolution for managers and other leaders. These can be terrific resources for the leader who wants to improve their conflict resolution skills.
But simply learning about the skills in the classroom isn’t enough. If you want to truly develop your conflict resolution skills, you have to refresh them and use them. And you have to learn from your mistakes.
The baseline skills for being able to resolve conflicts in a healthy manner are good listening, emotional intelligence, patience, impartiality, positivity, and excellent communication. With these baseline skills, the following techniques can be useful:
|Let people explain||Become defensive|
|Try to avoid becoming emotional||Point fingers or immediately assign blame|
|Show willingness to compromise||Talk behind people’s backs|
|Pay attention to nonverbal communication||Take the situation personally|
|Prioritize resolution over “winning”||Focus on the past|
How Conflict Resolution Complements Other Leadership Skills
Remember the baseline skills for effective conflict resolution listed above? Well, excellent listening, emotional intelligence, patience, impartiality, positivity, and strong communication are all essential leadership skills as well. In fact, it’s safe to say that leaders who consistently demonstrate excellent leadership skills are much likelier to be effective in helping resolve conflicts.
In my latest book, The Intelligent Leader, I discuss seven dimensions of leadership in depth. They are as follows:
- Thinking differently, thinking big
- The vulnerability decision
- Having a mindset of duty
- Leveraging gifts and addressing gaps
- Having the courage to execute with pride, passion, and precision
- Staying present and being vigilant
- Correcting course when necessary
Can you see how each of these dimensions of leadership contributes to the ability to resolve conflicts? Thinking differently and thinking big helps in developing solutions to conflicts that may seem overwhelming or intractable.
The fundamentals of outstanding leadership are also the fundamentals of conflict resolution.
Vulnerability demonstrates openness, and willingness to listen to hard truths. The mindset of duty pushes leaders to have those difficult conversations surrounding conflicts, even though they don’t necessarily look forward to it. Leveraging gifts and addressing gaps is about being better all around – including better at helping resolve conflicts.
Courage is clearly a necessary attribute for people who strive to resolve conflicts, and they must be present and vigilant so they can fully understand the situation and help develop the best solution. Finally, in the course of resolving conflict, it’s possible to become sidelined or to go off-track. Outstanding leaders know how to recognize this and get back on course toward reaching goals.
How Coaching Can Help Leaders Improve Conflict Resolution Skills
People don’t usually engage leadership coaches specifically to help further develop and solidify conflict resolution skills. But leadership coaching can be a remarkably effective tool for the leader who must resolve conflicts among individuals or teams. Leadership coaching is about recognizing strengths as well as skills gaps, and it is about further strengthening those strengths while bridging the gaps.
If a coaching client specifically asks for help in developing conflict resolution skills, the coaching process will look closely at how the client deals with conflicts now. What have been the results? What has gone right? What has gone wrong? If during the course of the coaching engagement, the client is called upon to mediate or help resolve a conflict, they can not only practice skills they worked on with the coach but can ask for the coach’s feedback on the techniques used in resolving the conflict.
A pitching coach doesn’t prescribe which pitches a baseball player uses on the mound. Rather, they work with both physical and mental skills off the mound, helping the pitcher assimilate them until they become second nature. A similar dynamic takes place between the leadership coach and the client.
For coaching clients who specifically set out to improve their ability to handle, mediate, and help resolve conflicts, coaching provides baseline assessment, feedback, and another assessment at the end of the coaching engagement, so that the client can measure their progress in meeting their goal.
It’s nice to imagine a workplace that is free of conflict, where everyone’s goals are always aligned, and personalities and perspectives never clash. But if you think a little harder, that conflict-free workplace would be devoid of the range of experiences and viewpoints that lead to breakthroughs and innovations. It would be boring.
The fact is, whenever people come together to accomplish something, there will be conflict. People will always see things differently. A cardboard “6” lying on the ground is a “9” to someone viewing it from the opposite direction. People view processes, instructions, and strategies differently too, and sometimes the result of those differences is conflict.
Leaders simply can’t assume conflicts won’t occur or ignore them when they do. What may seem like a minor difference of opinion to an outsider can feel overwhelmingly significant to the people engaged in conflict. Minimizing, ignoring, or sweeping conflicts under the rug only fixes things temporarily. One mark of a true leader is a willingness to recognize true conflict, understand it, and intervene when necessary.
One mark of a true leader is a willingness to understand and help resolve conflicts.
The leader who practices good listening, emotional intelligence, empathy, impartiality, and positivity on a daily basis is likelier to have teams that demonstrate these same qualities. And teams that fully assimilate these qualities are likely to be made up of members who feel empowered to handle conflict in a mature and professional manner. And in those cases where team members are unable to come to a resolution, they have built enough trust with their leader to enlist their help.
Leaders who shy away from involvement in team conflicts may turn to leadership coaching to help build their conflict resolution skills. While leadership coaching isn’t designed to teach conflict resolution, it is designed to help people hone their own conflict resolution skills and practice them in a safe environment, so that when the real thing erupts, they’re ready.
If you’re interested in learning how Intelligent Leadership skills empower leaders to excel at all their duties – including conflict resolution – I invite you to check out my books, including my latest book, The Intelligent Leader.
Glossary of Terms
Accountability – being responsible for what you do, fulfilling obligations and not using excuses when you don’t. Making things right after making mistakes.
Conflict – a disagreement between people who have opposing principles or opinions
Conflict resolution – a way for parties to find an amicable solution to a disagreement among them. Conflict resolution involves listening, negotiation, and often compromise or collaboration.
Corporate culture – beliefs, values, and behaviors that influence how an organization’s members interact and handle business.
Emotional intelligence – the ability to be aware of, to control, and to appropriately express emotions in interpersonal relationships, whether professional or personal
Groupthink – an insidious practice of making decisions or thinking as a group that discourages individual responsibility as well as creativity or innovation
Leadership coaching – a professional partnership designed to bring about sustained behavioral change and transform the client’s working life in a significant and measurable way
Self-Awareness – conscious knowledge and “ownership” of one’s own motives, feelings, and character and one’s effect on others
Toxic workplace – a workplace where the people, environment, or the work itself cause significant disruption to life both in and outside the workplace. Severely toxic workplaces can cause physical symptoms.