Conflict is tough for most of us. According to many physiologists, we tend to tap into several simple strategies when faced with conflict: fight, flight, or freeze. As a result, we likely aren't reducing unnecessary conflicts, and effectively dealing with necessary conflicts in productive ways. So many opportunities are lost because we aren’t engaging well. Being effective at conflict, both in a proactive and reactive way, demands that we work at it as an ongoing and everyday activity. In essence, it is a lifestyle choice in how we talk, problem solve, inquire with others, and arrange our processes and teams.
There are a number of choices, activities, and strategies that can be used to enhance your organization’s ability to handle conflict in a better way. The following are just a few:
- Hold People Accountable for Negative Behaviors and Celebrate Positive Behaviors
In working with organizations and leaders in many fields, I have found a few common missteps in conflict. One is the mishandling or lack of dealing with toxic people in our workplaces. They often get passes because they are good at their jobs or they are retiring soon, among various other reasons. The trouble is that they are doing grave damage to our teams and they also are setting a norm that bad behavior is allowed. Ultimately, we create workplace monsters by allowing the negative behaviors. Therefore, skills are needed to hold people responsible and foster realistic change.
Additionally though, we also must praise those team members who collaborate, share work, ask questions, are kind and gracious to their peers, and participate in a culture of radical candor (the topic of an outstanding book by Kim Scott). It can be as simple as saying "thank you" for asking a question or providing well-informed constructive feedback. It may include features of a performance review and therefore financial incentives for sharing work and helping others with work. The key is to celebrate those times when people are exhibiting positive conflict behaviors.
- Ask More Questions. Ask Better Questions
Experiences in our youth do little to promote the use of questions as a leadership tool. Therefore, it can be difficult to ask thoughtful and strategic questions “on the spot” when we are struggling with problems. Questions are such an important tool in conflict and any problem-solving activities. They lead to better problem identification and therefore more robust problem solving and even relationship building. People feel honoured, trusted, and included when they are involved via good questions and responses.
Brainfishing: A Practice Guide to Asking Questions by Gary Furlong and Jim Harrison, is a particularly helpful book that provides tools for improving the strategic and relationship-building use of questions. It provides ideas and steps for improving how you ask questions. First though we must disregard any natural tendencies to think that asking questions is a sign of weakness or dimness. We need to admit we don't understand or that we need to understand more deeply. This leads to curiosity, which can lead to better outcomes for the people on our teams and on our projects. Just think about the last time you asked someone a genuine question. I imagine that thoughtfulness on your part led to a great discussion and an enriched relationship.
- Involve People Strategically
The pendulum can swing really far when it comes to collaborative decision making and processes. Some organizations have embraced the principles of collaboration and yet they aren’t using it strategically enough. Signs of this include: people speaking disparagingly about meetings, people not implementing plans and decisions, and process fatigue (“Are we ever going to get anything done?”). Great leaders are thoughtful about the when, how, and who of inclusion. I liken it driving a stick shift; it takes practice and you have to push, release, and shift at the right moment for the transition to be smooth. The parts need to be moving together in a coordinated fashion at the right moments.
It is important to ask people how and when they want to be involved, and then respond when you can’t meet those needs and include them in the ways they want when possible. Additionally, team members need to advocate for themselves and their peers when they need to be included in an important plan or project decision. People don’t need deep involvement in each and every step typically, yet we need to consider how we involve them in order to provide the opportunity for their voices to be heard and our processes and final products to be that much better.
- Provide for Various and Dynamic Conflict Modes
Conflict competent teams are part of conflict competent organizations, meaning that every person in the system has some degree of conflict-engagement skills and there are clear avenues for handling conflict. The modes have to work for the people in the system. Some systems include online features, clear policies and processes, more ongoing and consistent performance review channels, training workshops, committees/boards, purposeful interpersonal interactions, policy/procedure reviews, one-on-one conversations, coaching, formal processes (e.g. mediation), and disciplinary processes. By no means is this list exhaustive but it gives a sense of the many moving parts of a conflict competent organization.
Identifying the appropriate modes for any organization involves steps; talking with people to identify the right ways of handling conflict, designing how these processes will operate in your organization, building awareness around the modes, experimenting with the modes, correcting any inadequacies, and evaluating in an ongoing way are just some of the steps. These steps can take time and may need outside help, but they are invaluable in having a conflict competent organization.
In order to do all of the above, there is a fundamental characteristic of the organization and it is to:
- Gain Executive-level Support for a Collaborative Culture
It is entirely possible for a team in an organization to do #1-4 in an organization that doesn’t, but they are limited by their surroundings, policies, norms, and executive leadership that foster those surroundings, policies, and norms. In order for conflict competency and collaboration to occur in every team and in every meeting, disciplinary process, and strategic planning session, the executive team must support the principles and build and use the skills themselves. This doesn’t mean simply setting policies and changing the hierarchical structure. It means diving deep into the organizational culture in order to create new systems, structures, and therefore relationships. Too often, this isn’t the starting point but it should be.
The “why” of this is important. People are demanding this type of interaction in their workplaces, communities, and other team-oriented activities more. This is particularly true of our emerging generations. Each of these helps people to feel more connected to their employers and fellow team members. Rather than mistreating one another over unnecessary conflict, coworkers can work alongside each other while also engaging in problem solving (i.e. conflict resolution) in a more robust way. People can start solving the problem that their organization is having. Numbers 1-4, in particular, provide a clearer path to helping our workplaces become kinder, more collegial spaces. Work can be tough at times, often because of how we interact with our colleagues. It is so much better to work in an environment in which there is the expectation that we are supportive, collaborative, and kind to one another through even the most difficult of times. This frees our time at work to be more productive and doing so in a collaborative and supportive way.
About the Author
Joan Sabott is a practitioner, consultant, trainer, teacher, and coach in conflict engagement and resolution. Currently, she is an adjunct faculty at Creighton University in Omaha, NE, USA, on leadership and conflict. Joan is an Affiliated Practitioner and former Senior Program Manager with The Langdon Group. She has consulted on various projects in the organizational sector for businesses and public agencies, and on environmental projects in the substantive areas of water, transportation, and land use and planning. From one day (or hour) to the next, she is mediating, facilitating, coaching, advocating and providing impromptu training sessions on conflict-related topics. Joan holds a B.S.B.A. in History, a Certificate in Secondary Education, and a Masters in Negotiation and Dispute Resolution, all from Creighton University.
Joan is a facilitator for the Queen’s IRC Strategies for Workplace Conflicts program.
If you are interested in custom training on this topic, please contact Cathy Sheldrick at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Furlong, G. T., & Harrison, J. (2018). Brainfishing: a practice guide to questioning skills. Place of publication not identified: FriesenPress.
Scott, K. (2019). Radical candor: be a kick-ass boss without losing your humanity. New York: St. Martins Press.