Executives in Leadership: Has Conflict Gotten a Bad Rap?


Do you feel like some days you just could use help managing the conflict you face at work? Do you dread working on a certain project, find it difficult to implement a company policy you don’t agree with, or just generally dislike the type of email you get in certain situations? You are in good company. A simple Google search on the subject “how to fight nicely at work” returns almost six and a half billion (yes that is billion) results.

With numbers like this, is it time to accept that conflict is just going to be a part of your work and be done with it? What can your employer do to improve the situation? What falls in your lap to fix? While you may associate conflict with all the potentially negative effects, it is important to recognize that conflict can actually make your job experience better. With all the emphasis on conflict resolution and the idea of “fighting nicely at work,” you probably marked all conflict as bad.

Let’s look at conflict through a different lens

In his article, How to Manage Conflict, Corkindale notes that this is not the case. While he recognizes that conflict can have a disruptive and—if not managed correctly—destructive side, when managed correctly, it can “promote collaboration, improve performance, foster innovation, and build deeper relationships.” He contends that his research uncovered that the more a company finds strategies to inspire debate and discussion, the more successful it is. Corkindale said, “The more skilled that managers become in handling differences and change without creating or getting involved in conflict, the more successful their teams and companies will be.”

Wiess and Hughes echo this sentiment in their article on managing conflict. They emphasized the idea that having leaders with strong competencies to manage conflict rather than trying to avoid it was key to the success of an organization.

“Executives underestimate not only the inevitability of conflict but also—and this is key—its importance to the organization. The disagreements sparked by differences in perspective, competencies, access to information, and strategic focus within a company actually generate much of the value that comes from collaboration across organizational boundaries. Clashes between parties are the crucible in which creative solutions are developed and wise trade-offs among competing objectives are made. So instead of trying simply to reduce disagreements, senior executives need to embrace conflict and, just as important, institutionalize mechanisms for managing it.”

What as a leader can you do to pull the wins out of conflict?

So now that we have established that there will be conflict and that conflict, managed properly, can have real wins, what as a leader can you do to get the positive and not the negative about conflict in the office?

There are a lot of things that leaders can do to improve the way conflict is seen at work. Obviously improving the trust that exists at the organization level, covered in this article, is a key first step. But beyond that, leaders can drive home the idea that conflict is expected, and that employees are valued when they respect the process of finding a solution as much as they respect each other when looking for it.

When time permits, look for a collaborative solution

The phrase “two heads are better than one” has been part of our English lexicon since 1546 and this saying also has application at work as well. Sometimes leaders just need a quick decision, and the best route forward is for them to step in and be decisive. But we have also all left meetings where every person added another layer to coming to an end decision.

Collaborative solutions, experts contend result in the most effective result. Corkindale notes that “co-operating with the other party to understand their concerns in an effort to find a mutually satisfying solution,” often results in the most creative solution.

Build clear lines of authority

Two modern trends in workplace design are the growth of cross-team projects and the granting of lower-level employees the ability to lead despite not having the “formal” powers to do so. While these trends add value in allowing companies to take on larger projects and give their younger recruits a chance to advance, it also has the effect of blurring the lines of authority.

When employees need someone to make the final call, this new workplace design makes it unclear at times who to go to for that decisive decision should that be needed. Organizations need to understand that even though these modern designs build collaboration, leadership still needs to define who to go when employees want a mediator.

Train staff to resolve conflict and recognize wins

In the end, there will be differences of opinion employees cannot resolve collaboratively, and every decision cannot be overseen by a mediator. According to Weiss and Hughes, that is when your company needs to state clear tradeoffs that are acceptable when a goal cannot be met. Leaders that communicate the lines for compromise teach employees to work together more effectively.

Additionally, they note that establishing a companywide policy for resolving disagreements, including training staff on how to manage conflict results in pays dividends. At Intel, which implemented such a formalized program, including training on conflict resolution, employees spent less time discussing who was to blame for not being a team player and “more on creative solutions on how to solve the problems they faced.” That had the added bonus of making conflict more acceptable to employees so that they were more open to it, which created more opportunities for the creative solutions that come from conflict.

Well managed, conflict can be a win for your organization

Conflict is not all bad, and your job as a leader and employee is to find a way to make conflict have a positive effect on your organization. Be mindful of the fact that the coworkers you are having conflict with also want what is best for your organization, for it to grow and thrive. You might be fighting about the way forward, but you are all on the same team.

The next time you may find yourself feeling that hair raise on the back of your neck, take time to really think about what you are fighting for, and look for the collaborative solution that brings the best ideas to the table.


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