The Management of Conflict
Conflict is described by Elias H. Porter PhD, as ‘an occurrence that threatens an individuals’ sense of self-worth or value’. In the essence of this description, conflict can occur anytime and in any place. With the onset of social media and the availability of immediate information conflict is all too apparent. This reflection considers conflict in the workplace, within teams and with our colleagues. It also considers conflict as a force for good, if the right awareness and motivations are in place.
Conflict in the workplace is of course not a new phenomenon, it is however, very personal. As individuals, we carry with us our own set of values that manifests through our behaviour. Raised staccato voices in meetings, the silencing after a particular statement all point to that threat of personal values. Management of conflict could be perceived as complex, one off events, differing points of view. What great managers do notice is a pattern and a change in behaviour. High awareness is required as well as a general view of who said what and when. Heightened awareness comes from unpicking transactions between team members and colleagues. Reflection will aid with identifying noticeable patterns and the opportunity to consider approaches.
A unique experience
Each team we work in provides us with a unique experience to practice reflection and differing approaches. If reflection and action don’t happen, conflict rolls round in self-prophesied circles. Sayings such as ‘you always act like that when this subject comes up’ or ‘here we go again, the normal round of insincerity’. The potential for harm here is greater as others are naturally spotting behaviour and almost expecting it. Our role as managers is to dig deeper into the either the potential or actual conflict. If this is happening to you now, then now is the time to act. Solutions such as 1-2-1’s with the individuals should be used to draw out that deeper reason for the attack on values. Searching and non-threatening questions such as ‘why do you react that way when she brings up that subject?’ will aid in getting to the core.
These types of interventions should be a unique experience for the individual. An opportunity to open up with honesty and should be met with dignity and respect. Even if the reason seems churlish to you, there is clearly a deeper issue. I am a huge advocate for coaching as a management style and it works if performed with honesty and integrity, just as if you were coaching anyone.
Start at the beginning
I have met managers who state that ‘this is all fine, but there is the day job to do. Can’t they just get on with it?’ My response is that this is the day job. Managing conflict and understanding our people rarely come on a job description but the essence of management is exactly this, managing the whole person. Another popular question is ‘when is best to begin to deal with conflict?’. My answer is always the same, start now. The very best time to do this, is when the team is formed or right after a change. It is not, however, impossible to consider this during a long tenure of a team. Organisations want teams to be efficient and productive. We know that conflict is a part of people working together and people management. Start at the beginning or re-create that beginning.
Resources such as TOOJAYS Training & HR Consultancy's Handling Difficult People downloadable PDF, provide a practical guide for managers.
More than team building
Re-creating a beginning with a long standing or already created team may seem strange. Look around, how many things are re-created and re-branded? Let’s take a mobile phone. The main functions remain the same, the reason newer versions are made are to upgrade. This may be a better camera, newer functionality. In essence, I can still make a call, send a text and take a picture. The same thinking applies, the function and people are the same, just a few upgrades are required. Managers should constantly review, see this as a review of roles and tasks performed. Conflict just happens to be a part of that review. Taking this kind of time out may seem un-productive, however it is an opportunity. This is more than a team building event; it is a positive action to create inclusiveness and openness. Create conflict by asking ‘are we being effective?’
Creating inclusion -sharing openly
Patrick Lencioni asks manager to actively create conflict within teams. When we do so, we can understand the values of that individual more and it shows that people are willing to go to opposition about the things they care about. Conflict has added value; it shows us that we are happy to defend a position and yet trust the people to understand why we have taken this standpoint. The role of the manager is to encourage this. When this happens openly, we can look to manage it. If we do this with sincerity and respect, we can draw out the deeper, critical elements. This in turn let’s the wider team understand that viewpoint and at some level, respect it.
Any good project team will begin with understanding who is in it. The prolific writer, Eddie Obeng states that when forming a team, a manager should share task related and personal concerns openly. Obeng asks us to consider his ‘circle of inclusion’. This is composed of three elements, inclusion, control and openness. A manager can then set the expectation very clearly for people who have trouble speaking up to controlling those who speak a lot. Inclusiveness means an opportunity for everyone to share concerns and drive solutions.
Conflict is viewed as a bad thing, something that should be avoided, something that should be kept in check. The contemporary view is to let conflict happen. By doing so we get a glimpse of their true value. When we know this, we can understand the pattern of behaviour that follows. Managing conflict is much more than the here and now, it is about deeply understanding the person and their values. Creating inclusive teams who share openly their concerns and solutions is a manager’s responsibility. Conflict is a part of that and should be embraced.
Lee Martin is the CEO of TOOJAYS Training and HR Consultancy Ltd a UK based Leadership, Management and Team Development organisation providing bespoke training and coaching solutions to individuals, teams and organisations across the globe.