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Executive Corner – Conflict is REQUIRED!

Michael Clegg | 05/31/2023

Conflict is an inherent and necessary component of any workplace environment. While it can often be viewed negatively, conflict can be a powerful catalyst for growth and development within teams and organizations when managed effectively. On the other hand, unresolved or mishandled conflict can result in significant tension, decreased morale, and a decline in overall productivity. Therefore, it is crucial for managers and leaders to possess the skills and strategies needed to navigate and manage conflict constructively. 

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Negative Conflict & How to Resolve it 

Management needs to be on top of it when it comes to managing conflict to ensure it stays constructive and does not become toxic. However, if the situation does become negative, there are several key steps can be taken to ensure a positive outcome: 

  1. Identify and understand the root cause(s) of the conflict.  

Identify potential sources such as misunderstandings, differences in perspectives or goals, or conflicting work styles. By gaining a comprehensive understanding of the underlying issues, it becomes easier to find an appropriate resolution. 

2. Maintain a neutral stance and actively listen to both sides of the conflict.  

This allows for a comprehensive understanding of each party’s perspective and facilitates the identification of common ground. It is crucial to approach the conflict with the mindset that everyone is on the same team, working towards a shared goal of problem-solving rather than trying to prove one person right or win the argument. Facts and logical reasoning should be the foundation of the discussion, while rhetorical tactics or being the loudest voice in the room should be avoided. 

3. Refrain from making the conflict personal. 

To promote a healthy and constructive environment, avoid name-calling, personal attacks, or questioning beliefs. Instead, assume that everyone involved has good intentions. Encouraging respectful communication and emphasizing the importance of empathy and understanding can also contribute to a positive conflict resolution process. Helping team members see alternative perspectives and practicing active listening can foster an environment of intellectual humility, where everyone’s viewpoints are respected and open to change. 

4. Promote collaborative problem-solving. 

By emphasizing the value of teamwork and collaboration, team members can collectively work towards finding a solution that satisfies everyone involved. Encouraging open communication and ensuring that all individuals have an opportunity to actively participate in the resolution process can help prevent future conflicts and create a sense of ownership and accountability among team members. 

5. Monitor progress after the conflict has been resolved 

This is equally as important as putting out the fire in the first place. Conducting follow-ups with the parties involved ensures that the resolution remains effective and that any potential issues are addressed promptly. By monitoring situations involving conflict, managers can prevent the recurrence or escalation of conflicts, maintaining a harmonious work environment. 

Preventing Negative Conflict 

In addition to managing conflict in the moment, leaders can establish a healthy conflict resolution culture by implementing general guidelines. This includes setting clear expectations and boundaries for behavior and communication, as well as providing a framework for addressing disagreements. Leading by example is crucial, demonstrating respect, active listening, and constructive problem-solving, while addressing conflicts in an unbiased and neutral manner.  

Promoting open communication is essential, creating an environment where team members feel comfortable expressing their opinions and concerns. Regular channels for communication and an open-door policy facilitate open and respectful dialogue. Addressing systemic issues that contribute to recurring conflicts is important, identifying underlying problems and finding resolutions to prevent future conflicts.  

Providing training and support to develop conflict management skills is key. Comprehensive training covering effective communication, emotional intelligence, and negotiation techniques empowers employees. Ongoing support through mentorship, coaching, and resources helps individuals navigate conflicts and develop resolution skills.  

To deal with conflict as a manager or leader, encouraging productive disagreement is crucial. Establishing rules for professional debates focused on problem-solving helps maintain a cooperative mindset. Emphasizing shared goals, relying on facts and logic, depersonalizing arguments, and practicing intellectual humility foster effective discourse. Leading by example and being accountable to these principles promote a culture of constructive disagreement.  

The Positive Effects of Conflict 

Workplace conflicts, surprisingly, can have a positive impact on relationships, choices, and solutions, benefiting both employees and organizations. However, achieving positive outcomes relies on conflict management training. Countries with extensive training programs report higher proportions of positive outcomes compared to those with limited training. 

Research shows that less than half of respondents have received conflict management training, with higher rates in the US and Brazil. However, over 95% of those who received training reported its helpfulness, leading to increased comfort and confidence in managing disputes and a focus on win-win outcomes. Positive results of conflicts include better understanding of others, improved working relationships, and finding innovative solutions. 

Interestingly, 80.6% of respondents are unafraid to engage in difficult conversations to achieve win-win resolutions, and 67.3% are willing to persist in dialogue until a resolution is reached. Over time, employees tend to change their approach to conflicts, becoming less affected personally and more proactive. With 85% of employees approaching disagreements differently than before, conflicts are viewed as opportunities for growth and effective resolution. 

Ultimately, effective conflict management leverages conflicts as opportunities for growth and learning. By embracing conflict, establishing guidelines, promoting open communication, addressing systemic issues, providing training and support, and exemplifying positive conflict resolution behaviors, organizations foster innovation, collaboration, and overall success. 

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Kim Scott’s book “Radical Candor” introduces a management framework that encourages direct and caring communication. The core concept of Radical Candor is represented by a 4-quadrant matrix that helps individuals understand different communication styles. Here are the four boxes of the quadrant: 

  1. Radical Candor: This box represents the ideal communication style. It occurs when you both care personally and challenge directly. Radical Candor involves giving clear, honest feedback while genuinely showing concern for the other person’s growth and well-being. It fosters a supportive and challenging environment that helps individuals reach their full potential. 
  2. Ruinous Empathy: This box represents a communication style where you care personally but fail to challenge directly. Ruinous empathy occurs when you prioritize being liked or avoid uncomfortable conversations rather than provide necessary feedback. While you may have good intentions, avoiding tough feedback can hinder an individual’s growth and lead to mediocrity or poor performance. 
  3. Manipulative Insincerity: This box represents a communication style where you neither challenge directly nor care personally. Manipulative insincerity occurs when you neither provide honest feedback nor genuinely care about the person’s well-being. It often involves political maneuvering, being passive-aggressive, or sugarcoating feedback. This style undermines trust and creates a toxic work environment. 
  4. Obnoxious Aggression: This box represents a communication style where you challenge directly but fail to care personally. Obnoxious aggression occurs when you prioritize criticizing and pushing for results without considering the impact on individuals. It often leads to demoralization, resentment, and a lack of psychological safety within a team. 

The goal of understanding these quadrants is to strive for Radical Candor by providing honest feedback while genuinely caring about the person’s growth and well-being. By fostering a culture of Radical Candor, leaders and team members can create an environment that promotes open communication, trust, and continuous improvement. 

As an early leader, I always cared about our team.  I worked hard to develop relationships with the team, which started in the interview process. I had a strong desire to be liked and was less concerned about being respected, which is one of the most dangerous personas a leader can have.  Therefore, there were times when I knew I needed to provide feedback to a teammate but didn‘t do it. It was uncomfortable to do that, and I didn’t want to hurt their feelings. That’s called ”ruinous empathy.” 

I had an employee, Tom, that I got to know quickly. He was in the early stages of being a professional and worked hard to learn his craft.  He didn’t dress as professionally as he should have. For the most part, it didn’t bother most people.  Tom was more interested in being a class clown. He liked being known as the ”funny guy.” That is until we had a client complain about his appearance.    While this overall issue of being the ”funny guy” could have been easily addressed, I didn’t say anything about it.  It was harmless most of the time. Until it wasn’t. He wore a shirt that he thought was funny, but the client thought it was tasteless and inappropriate. The client called me that afternoon and told me about the shirt Tom wore. They were not laughing. In fact, they asked Tom not to come back. Ever again.

When Tom got back to the office, I had to tell him about the client phone call and then ask him what he was thinking. In normal Tom fashion, he tried laughing it off. This time, I wasn’t laughing. I had to reprimand Tom for his lack of judgment and tell him it was time to grow up, listing out the many other instances where he lacked judgement just to get his attention. That was when I realized that I could have prevented all of this from happening. Instead of letting all of this happen over time, one simple conversation could have prevented us from losing the client. Not to mention, help tom improve in a major area of professional development. Because I never corrected his behavior, he thought that meant it was ok. 

This is why it is absolutely necessary to address conflict in the workplace. Ensuring that conflict doesn’t get out of control is vital for fostering a positive environment. Establishing guidelines, promoting open communication, and providing training and support all help organizations prevent negative conflicts and encourage growth. Embracing conflict as an opportunity for learning and innovation allows for improved relationships and win-win outcomes.

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