Inter-personal or group conflict is an inevitable consequence of people working together in teams. In fact, conflict can be a good thing, as it is a sign that people care and are passionate, and, if those energies are channelled correctly, they can be a great source of diverse ideas and solutions.
Too often however, conflict results in negative and damaging outcomes. It can hurt morale, suppress individual effectiveness, and, ultimately, destroy team productivity. Left untreated, it results in a downward spiral of negativity, emotions and blame.
A helpful starting point is to understand some of the theory, and to recognise that people have different (and preferred) styles of dealing with conflict. There is no one style that will work best in every situation, but once you have an understanding of the different styles, you have the opportunity to step back and think about the most appropriate approach (or perhaps mix of approaches) that will suit the current situation. And, having a raised awareness of your own ‘natural’ style is a good first step to helping you learn and adapt when necessary, so that it does not remain your only style. (For a deeper treatment of this area, see the work of Ralph H. Kilmann and Kenneth W. Thomas)
- Avoiding – Acting in a way that does not address the conflict directly. This style is typified by delegating controversial decisions, accepting default decisions, and not wanting to hurt anyone’s feelings. It can be a viable style to adopt when the issue and the relationship are of very low importance, but it should be used with extreme caution. Avoiding a serious issue may make the conflict intensify, possibly damaging relationships further.
- Accommodating – Involves accepting the other party’s position or interest at the expense of your own. People who naturally adopt this style are not assertive but highly cooperative. It may be appropriate when the issue matters more to the other party and when peace is more valuable than winning. It can, however, be counter-productive as you may be seen as weak, especially if used repeatedly. Furthermore, constant ‘accommodating’ may lead to increased stress.
- Competing – Working to have your position or interests take priority over those of the other party. People who tend towards a competitive style take a firm stand, and know what they want, usually operating from a position of power (whether position, rank, expertise, or persuasive ability). It can be useful in an emergency when a decision needs to be made fast; or when defending against someone who is trying to exploit the situation selfishly. However it can leave people feeling bruised, unsatisfied and resentful when used in less urgent situations. It is also not a useful style when it is important to generate diverse ideas or multiple solutions.
- Compromising – Involves each party giving and getting a little in terms of position and interests. People adopting a compromising style seek solutions that will to some extent satisfy everyone. This approach depends on everyone being prepared to give up something. It can be useful when the cost of conflict is higher than the cost of losing ground, when equal strength opponents are at a standstill and when there is a deadline looming. It is unlikely to work successfully for issues of principle and may cut off opportunities for collaborative problem solving.
- Collaborating – Parties attempt to meet all or most of the interests underlying their respective positions. Collaborators can be highly assertive, but unlike the competitor, they cooperate effectively and acknowledge that everyone’s input is important. This is the most useful style when it is important to bring together a variety of viewpoints to get the best solution; when there have been previous conflicts in the group; or when the situation is too critical for a simple trade-off. It is most effective for generating ‘high-quality solutions’ but requires a very high level of trust between parties, and relies on the use of considerable interpersonal skills (e.g. it is vital to confront issues directly without threatening the other party). For some situations it may not be appropriate due to the fact that it can take considerable time and effort to implement.
‘True’ Collaboration is an often misunderstood and overused term. It has been fashionable for companies to place ‘collaboration’ at the centre of their ‘desired’ culture and as one of their ‘highest-prized’ employee values, but it often becomes watered down to mean little more than ‘teamwork’ or ‘co-operation’.
But ‘true’ collaboration is rarely observed in corporate and public service cultures, in my experience. It demands a high level of awareness and skill of managing conflict styles by all parties, it takes hard work and patience, a recognition of where effort is required, and it calls for a high level of openness and honesty. When embraced, however, and ‘true’ collaboration is encouraged, practised and role-modelled throughout the organisation, people learn, develop and grow resulting in more engaged, effective and productive teams.
I dealt with this point to some extent in last week’s post on this site (“What gets in your way and blows the conversation?”) and I will develop these ideas further in future posts.
Until then, I leave you with two key pointers to help overcome common de-railers that either cause, or result from, conflict situations.
- Does everyone agree on what the problem actually is? Perhaps surprisingly, this is one of the most fundamental of mistakes from which conflict situations emerge. How often have you experienced people walking out of a meeting, having nodded their way through that meeting, appearing to agree on what the problem is and what needs to be done about it, only to go off in several different directions solving different problems? (possibly too much avoiding or accommodating going on here)
- Are you discussing the issue or are you engaging on an emotional level? When you analyse conversations between two people, or across a meeting room table, are you hearing constructive contributions, building on each other’s comments, challenging and agreeing in turn, with evidence, rationale and respect? Or are the exchanges happening in reaction to the other person’s stance, style or ‘past’? Has rationale disappeared from the discussion, to be replaced by assertions, dogma and ‘principles’. (perhaps as a result of too much competing)
It is so important to keep people and problems separate, so that real issues can be discussed without damaging working relationships.
To learn more about how you can become expert in this area, how you can build skill for you and your team, and how you can transform your working environment to one built on constructive conversations, please do get in touch by submitting your details through the Contact Us page. I will be delighted to discuss further with you.