Most executives acknowledge difficulty in dealing with conflict. Conflict comes in many guises. It can be person to person or group to group. It can be an in-house clash with direct reports and attendant personnel. Sometimes conflict occurs with external vendors, contractors, and consultants. It’s not uncommon for conflict to worm its way into otherwise tight-knit leadership teams or fracture the relationship between community partners and leaders. Conflict is omnipresent at union bargaining tables, in legal arenas, and is first-row center seat when bureaucrats and businessmen step into the ring. Depending on the size of the organization, conflict can morph into a mighty conflagration with the help of local and international media. Bottom line: any time people work together you have tinder stacked and ready for conflict.
Conflict is inevitable but its outcome depends on how it is managed. So how or when should executives deal with conflict? Sometimes the best decision is not to react and let time-bequeathed amnesia do the job. Sometimes, however, delaying a response can make the conflict worse. Conflict management isn’t ever comfortable and is all too-often avoided to the peril of the leader and the business.
Conflict is like a dance when partners step on each other’s toes while trying to figure out who’s leading or even what dance step to employ. Oftentimes the dancers go back to their respective seats limping and eager to commiserate with other dancers on the maladroitness of their clumsy oaf partner and swearing never to dance with them again. Often, other injured dancers chime in and what was an interpersonal problem becomes class warfare and the embattled leader has to put business goals on the back burners and do foot rubs to keep the conflict under control.
Conflict handled timely and effectively is carried out more like a conversation than a confrontation. And while the conversation may not be easy, doing so timely and consistently and effectively results in better outcomes. It is less likely the other party will feel affronted or surprised if a repeat conversation is needed.
Here are seven (7) ideas and scenarios that may help as you determine a course of action or your intervention:
- Make it a habit to keep the issues and conflicts between the parties and practice the art of not talking with others about something that doesn’t involve them. As simple as this sounds venting to others typically makes matters worse and often word can get back to the person(s) being talked about. Gossip needs to stop if conflict is to be handled well.
- Learning the lesson that anything one says or does can be held against them in a court of law or can show up on the news helps in managing conflict. Be discreet in how and when you speak or send a message that is conflictual.
- Stay defenseless. When managing conflict, emotions run high. Staying defenseless and taking an approach to understand versus accuse can reduce emotions which helps to create an environment favorable for conflict resolution.
- With customers, own mistakes and mishaps that are the company’s to own. Don’t try to defend the company; listen and own what you can. If multiple customers, families and friends are impacted, such as in an airplane crash, you may need a strong media plan to deal with communication to interested parties. The larger the conflict or the greater the consequence of it, the more public it becomes.
- In the case of union conflict, clear and transparent communication about organizational change and activities is critical to keep union unrest at a minimum. Delaying communication tends to send the message you don’t want to communicate or have something to hide. Another tactic that is effective is to keep union representatives informed in advance of a change and activity and if possible obtain union input into the process.
- If there are performance issues with a direct report, a vendor, or a contractor, deal with the issues timely or you risk the possibility of escalation into a real conflict. It is easier to ignore an issue or conflict than to deal with it. But when it comes to performance, the issues don’t tend to resolve without the performance being discussed. Instead, the issues continue and non-performers remain oblivious to the problem. Procrastinated conflict-resolution can unleash violent reprisals that are out of proportion for the current issue and the employee, vendor, or contractor will be caught off guard.
- As the CEO, getting involved in employee conflict should be a last resort unless the conflict has gone through due process and it is now in your hands to hear the concerns and determine appropriate actions. While an employee’s anxiety may be dissipated because s/he has been heard by the “top dog”, care must be taken in how the CEO resolves the situation to avoid throwing a direct report “under the bus” by taking or being perceived as taking sides.
Make it a habit to embrace rather than avoid conflict. If you deal with anything conflictual early into the process, the results are typically more favorable than letting an issue or conflict fester.