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How to Handle Conflict

Posted by vince
Published on 05 April 2019

Leadership, management, change and conflict go hand-in-hand in most organisations.  Wherever you may fit in your organisation and, if you don’t productively address conflict, then something will eventually go wrong and, in some circumstances, the business can implode. Whether it’s two entrepreneurs who’ve made a fortune and then suffered conflict which has led to a detrimental split or the demise of The Beatles, conflict is toxic in both social and work situations.

In a way, the conflict has to be embraced and not feared. Most of us hate conflict and will do virtually anything to avoid it. But that means that the conflict and the problem are still present under the surface. While you can try and avoid conflict (bad idea), you can’t escape it. If the conflict is tangible, to whatever degree, it really should be dealt with properly and as immediately as possible.
The fact of the matter is conflict in the workplace, for example is unavoidable. It will find you whether you look for it or not. The ability to recognise it, understand its nature and to be able to bring a swift and appropriate resolution to the conflict will serve you well. The inability to do so may well be your downfall. But easy to say, hard to do. Tackling conflict at the outset and seeking the right result is key. Remember, even with compromise though; one party may well feel that their case or their side isn’t being fairly judged. That’s a fact of life but that too needs managing otherwise more conflict from the same protagonists reoccurs.
How many times over the years have you witnessed otherwise clever professionals self-destruct because they wouldn’t engage out of a fear of conflict? Keeping under the radar and hoping that conflict will pass you by is not an effective methodology for problem-solving. Conflict rarely resolves itself - in fact, conflict normally escalates if not dealt with proactively and appropriately. It’s not at all uncommon to see what might have been a non-event manifest itself into a monumental and long-lasting problem.
Every workplace will have within it some (even one) manipulative people who will use emotion to create conflict to cover-up for their lack of ability or skill. These are they who, when confronted about wrongdoing or lack of performance, are quick to point the finger in another direction. They are adept at using emotional tirades which often include tears, blame-shifting, lies and other manipulations to deflect from their non-delivery. That’s toxic and is more common than you may think. Sometimes these people are clever at keeping the right ‘face’ for those who are in charge and therefore their activities can go on for a long time harming the business and the lives of others. The only thing worse is management that doesn’t recognise this and does nothing about it. Real leaders and great managers don’t play favourites, don’t get involved in drama and they certainly don’t tolerate manipulative, self-serving behaviour.
Developing effective conflict resolution skills is an essential part of growing a business whether you have three people or thirty thousand. Unresolved conflict invariably results in loss of productivity, cutting corners, H&S issues, unhappy employees, the stifling of creativity and the building of barriers to willingness, co-operation and collaboration.
While (perhaps even mild) conflict is a normal part of any social and organisational setting, the challenge of conflict lies in how one chooses to deal with it. Concealed, avoided or otherwise ignored, the conflict will fester only to grow into resentment, employee withdrawal or factional infighting and squabbling.  These things rarely stay the same and always get worse without resolution. Interpersonal conflict is a part of social and business life, but only from time to time. That’s because we’re all different of course and, while we all agree on some things in which others believe, we don’t all the time. All sorts of things get in the way – jealousies, attitudes, upbringing, education, politics, religion, prejudices, media influence and so on. At work, staff may have competing plans on how to solve a problem or conflicting ideas on what tasks have priority. Some conflicts are resolved with a simple set of directions, but that isn't always the case by any means.  Other conflicts require strong interpersonal skills, as well as the ability to manage personalities. You may find that you need support in this and it’s important anyway to establish what legal aspects exist to any conflict (and solutions) as well as any other regulatory aspects.
When things get complicated, a top-down solution won't help. Bluntly telling someone ‘do this or else’ may solve the immediate issue (in your mind), but you'll then have simmering conflict, a conflict that can easily break out during the next high-pressure moment. Or at any time. If people become angry, humiliated or unhappy because of malpractice or poor management, then that’s never going to go away without a proper solution. And the organisation won’t be getting the right level of productivity from those who feel resentful or unhappy.
So, it’s important to be prompt about addressing any conflict situation. If left unchecked, issues can escalate. A key to resolution is to understand what result each person involved in the conflict wants to achieve and what trade-offs or compromises they’re willing to make. Also, try to ascertain their motivations and fears – the real reasons. In other words, break the conflict apart to move it to consensus and then conclusion. In other words, create an agreement. But jumping in and immediately fixing a problem, rather than solving it, is probably only a temporary fix. For longer-term results, it’s likely necessary to step in and help each side clearly understand - firstly what the conflict is and then act as a mediator until a positive solution for both sides has been reached. Not easy.
As intimated above, the question that needs asking first is, what is the real battle? Many times we address symptoms, but we aren’t addressing the main issue let alone solving it. This only wastes time frustrates people and makes the conflict linger longer. Often high emotions are in the way and will cause barriers, so it’s important to try and get both parties to hold back the emotion and stick to facts. Again, this isn’t easy, but trying to achieve this will invariably bring reason and proper argument to the discussion.  When emotions are high, that’s not the best timing for dealing with conflict so try and bring the factions together when tempers may have cooled a little, but don’t wait too long. Also, a good point - conflict should not be handled in public. Conflict becomes a great spectator sport much like fights in the playground at school. Also, others may get involved who were not involved in the first place. And, of course, matters can get out of hand and possibly physical. So privacy is a must.
Of course, the issue about which the conflict is raging is about you or due to you. The issue could be you. It’s important, and you can’t be a mediator and one side of the argument simultaneously, so you might need some third party help to ensure that you’re not using seniority to conclude a conflict issue. Or you need to look long and hard at your actions and be honest about any faults which are yours and which may have caused the conflict, whether inadvertently or deliberately.
Also, sometimes we fail to address the conflict because we’re afraid of how the other party may respond or we’re frightened of hurting feelings. This avoidance will likely cause more eventual wrangling and discomfort. Certainly, nothing will be settled. Be kind, but make sure you are clear, direct and helpful – and know when to conclude discussions.
The way to keep prevent conflict (the kind that destroys relationships) from occurring is by confronting small conflicts along the way. Minor conflict is always easier to handle than major. But, overall, never waste conflict. Use it to make the organisation and the relationship better. Most people want a win-win situation, and sometimes that’s possible, and sometimes it isn’t. The world isn’t always fair by any means arriving at a workable decision must always be the ultimate goal.

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