“Conflict is a fact of life. It is something people face every day. People often make the mistake of equating conflict with fighting or arguing. The following is a better definition of conflict, in my opinion: “The condition in which people’s concerns—the things they care about—appear to be incompatible.”
— Betty Till
How do you deal with conflict in your role as a leader? How do the people around you deal with it? Do you even notice how it is handled? The answers to these questions can tell a lot about how effectively you and the people around perform in order to achieve your mission.
The word “conflict” conjures up a range of impressions, including disagreement, disharmony, opposition, fighting and even warfare. These are all things that people generally like to avoid. Unfortunately, in many workplaces, people do avoid conflict, often to the great detriment of the organization.
Have you ever solved a longtime problem in your organization and then thought: “You know? We could have taken care of this years ago.” Chances are good that conflict avoidance had a hand in the long delay over resolving that issue.
When conflict is continually avoided by leaders and the people who work around them, communication, decision making and working relationships all suffer. Resentment builds and delays in performing work and making positive strategic changes often occur.
If people continually avoid conflict and never have that difficult conversation—the back-and-forth expression of clashing ideas—a passive-aggressive mentality can develop and dominate, creating a false harmony, and spawning a volatile workplace full of unsatisfied workers. This mentality will often be directed at you, the leader. Instead of directly addressing you about their frustrations and concerns, your workers will find other ways to let you know, ways that may undermine what you are trying to accomplish.
Trying to Define Conflict
Conflict is a fact of life. It is something people face every day. People often make the mistake of equating conflict with fighting or arguing. The following is a better definition of conflict, in my opinion: “The condition in which people’s concerns—the things they care about—appear to be incompatible.”
The word “appear” is pivotal in this definition. When people bring their conflicts out into the open, they often find that the differences between their concerns are much smaller than they had once thought.
Methods for Dealing With Conflict
There is no one method for dealing with conflict that will work in every situation. Among the methods of dealing with conflict are accommodating, compromising, collaborating and competing.1 Even avoiding, which we have already addressed, is considered a method for dealing with conflict, but when it’s the most frequent method used, it can set you up for greater conflict down the road.
Accommodation can bring harmony, help people with their needs and quickly defuse conflict, but if leaders accommodate too often they may lose respect and demotivate their workers. Leaders will surely lose out by continually conceding details that are important to them in the process. For example, if a leader accommodates the poor performance and attitude of certain employees by not terminating them, he or she will lose the respect of other employees and the entire workplace will suffer.
Compromise works well in some situations, bringing a sense of fairness into defusing the conflict and bringing a swift and usually, friendly, resolution. However, people often have to sacrifice some of their concerns in the process, and if leaders compromise too much, their authority and the respect they receive will certainly be eroded. A great deal of compromising and accommodating often occurs in mergers and acquisitions of hospitals and physician practices, and much of the animosity surrounding such moves comes from this win lose method.
Sometimes leaders need to be what conflict experts call “competitive.” There are times when a swift victory is needed to get something vital accomplished—for example, in a turnaround situation in which new management takes over and must make a bold move to cut staff. In these cases, leaders need to assert their positions and just say, “This is the way it’s going to be.” However this method cannot be maintained as a continual style of dealing with conflict, because it can demotivate, strain working relationships and even result in gridlock.
Collaborating is often the best way to deal with conflict. It requires flexibility and openness on the part of leaders, and it can result in high-quality decisions and solutions that bring greater buy-in throughout the organization. However, the process of collaboration requires a lot of time and energy of leaders.
As a leader, you must deal with conflict and create a culture in which others are encouraged to do so. You must facilitate discussion where differences are openly expressed. Healthy articulation of conflicting opinions allows people to feel heard and is the precursor to gaining commitment for decisions. Promote this behavior, especially in meetings in which vital issues are being discussed. Believe it or not, often when conflict is confronted effectively, it can result in a much more congenial, comfortable and highly efficient workplace.
1. Thomas, K. W., “Introduction to Conflict Management: Improving Performance Using the TKI,” (Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press, 2002)