I know, I know. Mere mention of the word makes you tense up a bit.
That’s why I tread softly when I teach my management skills workshop. I begin by getting a quick pulse on the health of an organization to determine if there are bad management practices lurking that will diminish the effectiveness of my teaching. I want to know as fast as possible if this organization has a pervasive culture that won’t support a good manager.
If I am lucky, I can work with the business leaders before the class to discover the learning roadblocks. But if I am flying blind, I can usually bring to the surface troublesome issues by opening the session with a few key questions such as: What issues or concerns do you have managing others? What frustrates you the most as a manager?
Scroll down for some of the reasons why it is so bad to avoid conflict, as well as my primer on how to find healthy resolutions. And in the sidebar article (right), you’ll find a review of an oldie but goodie, “People Skills: How to Assert Yourself, Listen to Others, and Resolve Conflict,” by Robert Bolton.
Here’s to successfully working your way through any conflict.
How to Resolve Conflict With Grace and Style
How to Resolve Conflict With Grace and Style
By Dr. Alice Waagen
In the years that I have been teaching managers, certain themes recur.
For example, when I hear managers cite poor communication and rampant gossip, I know that employees are acting out with aggression in response to some kind of internal warfare because they feel that their ideas or concerns are not being heard — or taken seriously.
When they tell me, “Conflict is avoided here,” I know they are stifling disagreements, but then back-channeling the issues through others. This form of passive resistance always leads to passive-aggressive behavior — and this is the unhealthiest behavior for the organization as a whole.
But it’s understandable that conflict-avoidance is the current modus operandi at many companies today. The rotten economy has contributed to folks not being comfortable challenging others. Fear of losing a job, or damaging a reputation, can cause people to swallow their concerns or objections and declare agreement on issues when, in fact, they couldn’t disagree more.
Why is conflict-avoidance so bad?
As you can imagine, all of this suppressed frustration takes its toll. In the extreme, a culture of conflict-avoidance creates organizations that muddle along with an entrenched status quo. Endless meetings result in discussions without decisions, and when decisions are made, they are soon undermined and revoked. Then it is back to more meetings to discuss the same issue — again and again.
Senior leaders become highly frustrated because no issue is ever brought to completion. Managers are frustrated, of course, because they spend their days on what feels like an endless treadmill of talking about issues that never get resolved.
You can break the cycle.
The healthy approach to resolving conflict is to pick your battles wisely, let go of those that are of little value, and find a middle ground when appropriate.
When I work with organizations that deal with conflict in this productive way, I help them master a series of management practices that use conflict and disagreement productively. Here’s how it works:
1. Control your reaction. Individuals choose their reaction to conflict based on the particulars of the problem being discussed. Select an approach from these options:
- Sublimation: I give up my needs and issues and let you win.
- Assertiveness: I express my needs and issues to see if there is a workable compromise or collaboration
- Aggression: I express my need as being more important than the needs and issues of others.
2. Keep a decision journal. At the end of every meeting, simply record what decisions were made, the date they were made, and all who supported or dissented. Review the journal periodically to see if the decisions withstood the test of time.
Remember, when conflict is avoided, the opposing viewpoints are not aired but suppressed for the sake of appearing to agree. When information is withheld, decisions are then based on missing or faulty premises. These decisions have a short self life and are soon seen to be flawed. Then it is back to the drawing board. If you keep a journal, you’ll be able to track this better, so you can break the cycle.
3. Stay in control. If an unhealthy number of decisions are remanded over time, review the participant involvement and votes and answer these questions:
- Did we know all relevant information when making the decision?
- If not, what was missing? Did someone on the team have this information but fail to bring it forth? Why?
- Were there any dissenting voices? How were they treated?
- What needs to change to make the decision-making process safe for open and productive disagreement?
- Do certain individuals habitually take on one reaction to conflict, either aggression or submission, regardless of the issue? These individuals need to broaden their approach to disagreement by learning new conflict-management approaches.
The bottom line: No one likes to work in an environment of frequent battles and endless arguments. But the false peace of suppressed needs is artificial and ultimately even more destructive. Healthy organizations welcome and support disagreement and discussion that results in sound decisions. Embrace it.