5 Ways to Harness Conflict in the Workplace
For business leaders, conflict can be a four-letter word. Gossip at the water cooler, passive-aggressive comments flung back and forth at meetings, and grade-school like factions between teams plague many office settings. Although conflict may seem to entice and encourage these destructive dilemmas, conflict doesn’t have to be the enemy of a company’s work culture and productivity. Conflict itself emerges at the intersection of workplace diversity, where differing opinions, commitments, and strategies are backed by employees’ strong emotions and beliefs. When emotions go unchecked, disregarded, and left to their own devices, that’s when problems—and significant costs—disrupt a company’s morale and productivity.
Truth is, leaders can see conflict as a revenue-generating asset, if they change their thinking and behavior toward conflict management. Because conflict can be unpleasant, many leaders avoid it, tackle it head on, or assume it will resolve itself with time. But these strategies mean a leader will likely see negative issues arise within a company’s overall performance and bottom line.
How Conflict Costs Billions
Conflict is inevitable, and its dilemmas are invasive. In 2008, CPP Inc.—publishers of the Myers-Briggs Assessment—conducted a comprehensive study on workplace conflict. They found that a vast majority (85%) of employees at all levels deal with conflict of some kind. And not only do most employees encounter conflict in general, but it’s part of their daily routine. The same study also found that most U.S. employees deal with conflict for nearly 3 hours a day. That means companies lose over one day of work every month for nearly every employee, to the tune of $359 billion in paid hours lost to conflict.1Additionally, unproductive conflict leads to an increased use of sick days, and, in extreme cases, long stretches of unresolved conflict can lead employees to look for work elsewhere.
Loss of money and employees aren’t the only direct costs to a company due to conflict. Team camaraderie and cooperation plummet in the presence of mishandled conflict. Two-thirds of employees avoid problematic team members or a member with whom they disagree, leading to a loss in communication, focus, and readiness.2 Correlated issues arise as well, including teams that create informal “tribes,” smaller factions of employees with their own “code of ethics” and pace of work, in order to seclude necessary workflow and processes from others.
Conflict can obviously be costly, but it doesn’t have to be.
Leaders who approach the challenges of conflict differently, learning to harness its opportunities, will see conflict’s costs diminish and greater potential for their teams and revenue.
For this to happen, leaders must embrace new ways of thinking about conflict. And they must see that productive harnessing of conflict begins with themselves.
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Conflict Management Begins with the Leader
Leaders set the organizational pace and cultural tone of their companies. Though everyone meaningfully contributes to a team’s overall wellness and performance, a leader defines its direction. And a leader with poor conflict-management abilities will likely see the same from their teams.
The Problems of Conflict Avoidance
Poor conflict management comes in a variety of forms, but they all generate unhealthy rhythms and patterns within a company. For instance, leaders may avoid conflict due to fear. Perhaps a leader is intimidated by the idea of navigating employees’ emotions, fear of disagreement, or loss of a certain image as a leader. Ironically, though, leaders who avoid conflict due to fear or discomfort find themselves with more intimidating dilemmas and an inevitable loss of credibility among employees.
Other leaders may avoid conflict, not because of fear, but because they believe it’s not worth the time or loss of productivity. Similarly, leaders who avoid conflict in order to maintain productivity levels will ironically encounter the loss of overall company productivity.
Some “avoidance,” though, can prove helpful. Stepping back from a conflict, especially in the beginning, allows for a “cooling off” period where heightened emotions can dissipate and make way for clearer thinking. But this shouldn’t be confused with a habit of avoidance. No amount of avoidance will rid a conflict of emotion. Habitually avoiding conflict allows residual, unhealthy thoughts and emotions to fester and create deeper problems.
The Problems of “Dealing With” Conflict
But poor conflict management doesn’t always equal conflict avoidance. Poor conflict management may result from believing conflict must simply be “dealt with.” For instance, some leaders see conflict as an opportunity to flex their authoritative muscles and establish a claustrophobic “no tolerance policy” for any kind of conflict, effectively outlawing conflict altogether. When conflicts then arise, their approach becomes shaped by ego accompanied by public displays of authority, which amount to an executive leader’s version of “grandstanding.” Employees won’t stay under this type of leader, though.
Another approach is the overly pragmatic approach. Though less aggressive than “outlawing” conflict, leaders leveraging this approach see conflict as a benign issue that can be dealt with using a cleverly devised “silver bullet” strategy. This approach looks at conflict through an overly calculated lens and fails to consider the complexity of employee emotions and personality differences. Solutions to conflict devoid of emotional intelligence produce thin, singular attempts to cultivate team morale, leaving leaders confused when the mandatory “company field day” fails to improve company culture overnight.
5 Ways to Harness Conflict
The best approach to conflict isn’t by avoiding or outlawing it. Instead, leaders who shift their thinking on conflict from a purely solutions-based resolution to a management approach will see conflict less as an inevitable constraint and more as an opportunity to grow their teams and companies.
Here are five key ways to harness conflict in the workplace:
Change Your Thinking, Change Your Approach
Without stating the obvious, adapting an approach to conflict starts with a nuanced understanding of conflict. Investing the time to understand the causes, complexities, and opportunities of conflict will promote an approach that’s less about what a leader does to get rid of conflict and more about how a leader uses conflict to cultivate discussion, collaboration, diversity of thought, and growth. Leaders who see the advantages in productive conflict management see tremendously positive outcomes. As one PROMARK coach shared:
“Conflict is absolutely critical for success. Diversity of thought leads to successful new products, great marketing campaigns, operational improvements, better accounting methods and the list goes on. If you want to have a great organization, get people’s input on how to solve problems and seize opportunities and then draw out every voice. Sometimes that “quiet one” in the back of the room has the breakthrough idea that elevates the team.”
The best leaders know when to act and when to listen, particularly because they realize they may not have all the answers. Conflict approaches motivated by ego (“I’m always right”) or narrow-mindedness (“It’s my way or the highway”) will only create more conflict and tension. Leaders who listen to others—other leaders, their board, coaches, employees, etc.—and encourage listening as a valuable tool within work relationships, cultivate work cultures where teams and individuals feel heard and where conflict can be seen as a way to challenge someone’s ideas, and not the actual person. One way to do this is to encourage employees to “listen” across work silos, using team meetings as a place for others to listen and learn. As one PROMARK coach shared:
“Encourage the sales rep to sit with the finance or the marketing team. Break apart tribes and departments and have people with different perspectives collaborate to solve problems. Have the sales and OPS team collaborate on projections and forecasts and then have them present to plan together.”
Gain Understanding through Training
The best way for a leader to adapt their approaches to conflict is through conflict-management training. Every leader is busy, but investing the time, energy, and finances to learn the skills of productive conflict management will produce a cascade of ROI over time. Hiring a 3rd party is useful because it allows a leader to be honest with a coach about their vulnerabilities and limitations when it comes to conflict. It also allows a coach to develop a leader’s emotional intelligence in a safe yet challenging space. Through coaching and training, leaders learn how to adapt conflict-management approaches based on personality differences among team members, limiting the amount of assumptions or confusion that come from a “one-size-fits-all” approach to conflict.
Because of conflict’s ubiquitous presence, it’s important for leaders to invest in their teams’ managers, equipping them to productively navigate their own emotions and behaviors while utilizing the opportunities inherent in moments of workplace conflict. Executive leaders should see productive use of conflict beginning with their hiring strategies, ensuring conflict-management is a valued aspect of a manager’s job description while looking for hires who understand how to address and optimize conflict’s potential. Executive leaders should also provide new managers any requisite training to ensure they’re equipped to navigate conflict, starting with self-management. When managers can understand and steward their own emotions in the midst of conflict, they’re better suited to navigate and harness its opportunities to cultivate trust among their teams. And trust is the basis of teams who can confidently challenge one another’s ideas, navigate their emotions with reasonableness, and pursue greater cohesion and company success.As Patrick Lencioni, author of 5 Dysfunctions of a Team, writes:
“When there is trust, conflict becomes nothing but the pursuit of truth, an attempt to find the best possible answer.”
Create Accountability and Collaboration
Productive conflict occurs when leaders communicate an expectation that everyone involved plays a role in ensuring moments of conflict can be utilized to highlight and consider diverse opinions and strategies and discover innovative ways to move forward. Doing so encourages opportunity for creative collaboration and accommodation among team members and teaches them not to pass the responsibility to the manager or executive leader. Leaders who create space with appropriate facilitation provide employees in the midst of conflict unexpected and necessary spaces for empowerment, which can lead to unanticipated moments of teamwork and elevated solutions.
Don’t Handle Conflict: Harness It.
Conflict may be inevitable, but leaders can harness conflict to make success just as inevitable. Though it may not seem readily obvious, the ROI a leader and their company experience from productive conflict-management can be felt throughout a company’s culture and bottom line.
“When managed well, productive conflict management is a powerful resource for positive change, creative problem solving, and sustaining trust and respect among team members and the organization.”
– PROMARK Coach
Wondering how to pursue more productive conflict-management skills or how to equip others on your team to improve your bottom-line? Contact us today.
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1CPP Global, Human Capital Report, July 2008.
3Patrick Lencioni, The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else In Business
(San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, 2012), 38.