Leading Through Conflict
Even when viewed from a distance, the tip of an iceberg presents a formidable obstacle on the ocean’s surface. As the passengers of the Titanic discovered, an iceberg’s true danger lies unseen since 90% remains hidden beneath the waves. This is also true with conflict in the workplace, where employees
frequently ‘solve’ surface problems but fail to address the underlying causes which led to the conflict in the first place. By focusing only on surface issues, employees see the same problems rise from the depths over and over and spend valuable time and effort ‘rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic’ instead of fixing the leaks below the waterline that would have substantial impact upon productivity, service, and morale. Effective leaders go beyond surface solutions and help employees identify and address the root causes of conflict.
The Nature of Conflict
To resolve conflict in the workplace it is important come to an agreement or understanding about what is the conflict. Sometimes what one person perceives as a conflict another may perceive as an opportunity. For example, one employee may see changing a work procedure as an opportunity for enhancing quality or service, while a co-worker may view the same change as ‘fixing something that isn’t broken.’
Like an iceberg, these differences in perception may be due to unseen factors below the surface. All too often, individuals attempt to resolve the conflict by focusing on the visible conflict which is less stressful, but does not lead to productive, long term solutions. Although it may appear that a problem has been resolved-- underlying needs, motivations, and concerns are left unaddressed and lead to additional conflict, strained relationships, lower productivity, and poor customer service.
Good News for Leaders
The good news is that when leaders take the time to help subordinates and coworkers learn to manage conflict effectively, the organizational experiences greater productivity, higher quality, increased morale, and satisfied customers. Unfortunately, many organizations do not have effective conflict management training in place. Dr. Michael Beyerlein, Executive Director for the Center for Collaborative Organizations at Purdue University observed, “At our annual conferences, presentations on conflict management often have standing-room-only audiences. People are hungry to discover tools or methods that will help them cope with conflict more effectively and improve group output.”
In my book, Conflict to Cooperation, I present an integrated model which illustrates conflict resolution as having several major stages (see illustration below). First, individuals experiencing conflict agree on the nature of the surface conflict. Second, individuals work together to understand each other’s underlying assumptions, concerns, and motivations. Once those involved understand each others concerns and needs, they can move to the final stages and determine individual and collective goals as well as develop action plans for addressing the conflict. As the model illustrates, the ability to use effective communication skills as all times is a key factor in successful conflict resolution.
A major benefit is that this process is easily adapted to support an organization’s existing training and culture. “We found that the Conflict to Cooperation model has proven to be an excellent method our employees use to discuss potential challenges, problem-solve, and reach decisions everyone supports,” said Adam Hamilton, President and CEO of Signature Science. Adam explains, “An added benefit is that managers can learn to use this model to coach employees to address conflicts in their daily interactions with others.”
As a leader, you can take positive, proactive steps to create a high performance workplace. By understanding how each other views a conflict as well as personal motivations and concerns, work group members can develop shared goals and action plans that dramatically enhance trust, interpersonal relationships, service, and productivity.
Conflict to Cooperation Model
Dr. Garry McDaniel, Professor
Professor of Human Resource Development
Franklin University in Columbus, Ohio, USA.