There is no way around it, if you are a leader there will be times that test your conflict resolution skills. It may be a conflict that you have with someone, it may be conflict between employees, or it may be a conflict that involves your customers. Any time that you are working with people, some type of conflict is going to come up at some point.
So, what exactly is conflict? Conflict exists when there are two or more parties who seem to have incompatible views and interests or desire incompatible outcomes and results. Generally speaking, there are three types of conflict.
Personal or Relationship Conflicts. These tend to carry strong emotion with them. They revolve around feelings of betrayal, lack of trust or respect, or are perceived to be an attack on our self-image.
Instrumental Conflicts. These relate to organizational structure. Here the disagreements are about goals, policies or procedures.
Interest Conflicts. These focus on the how or what of a process. Common topics are about how time, money, space, or people are being used, or what these elements are being used towards.
“Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak. Courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” Winston Churchill
Approaches to Conflict Resolution
Once you have identified the type of conflict you are dealing with, it can help you in determining which approach is best suited to that specific conflict. Every conflict is different so different approaches are needed.
From the formal perspective, conflicts can be resolved through negotiation, mediation, arbitration, or litigation.
Negotiation. This involves brainstorming options and looking for trade-offs across issues. The goal is to create a satisfactory outcome to the conflict without the aid of professional assistance. While this is a formal business process, it can be done informally in the early stages of conflict.
Mediation. Professionally trained and certified mediators serve as a neutral party. They work with the parties involved both together and separately, to identify a resolution that is sustainable, voluntary, and nonbinding.
Arbitration. This resembles a court trial. A neutral third party serves as a judge who makes decisions to end the dispute. The arbitrator/judge listens to the arguments and evidence presented by each side, then renders a binding and often confidential decision.
Litigation. Here you have an official legal process involving lawyers and the government court system. All of the information goes into a public record and the outcomes are legally binding.
From the non-formal perspective, conflicts can be resolved by collaborating, compromising, accommodating, controlling, or avoiding.
Collaborating. When the issue is highly important and neither party has a clear idea for a solution, this can be a great approach to use.
Compromising. This approach is frequently used when a quick and temporary solution is needed, or when all attempts as collaboration have failed.
Accommodating. If one party clearly has a better solution, or the interest of one party is significantly higher, accommodating that party can be the best approach.
Controlling. When quick, divisive action is needed for an unpopular situation, this approach may be most effective.
Avoiding. This approach is useful when the conflict is a very low priority or when the potential damage from the confrontation is greater than the benefit of any resolution.
It is important for leaders to be aware of all the different types of ways that conflict can be addressed. You need to understand both your preferred approach as well as the preferred approach of your employees. This awareness can help you know how to apply conflict resolution strategies so that you get to an effective solution quickly.
“Whenever you are in conflict with someone, there is one factor that can make the difference between damaging the relationship and deepening it. That factor is attitude.” William James
Conflict Resolution Strategies
In the majority of situations, it is best to start with a non-formal approach. Leaders are frequently in situations where they must manage the conflict resolution process. Becoming skilled at this process goes a long way in identifying yourself as an effective leader.
Define Acceptable Behavior.
While it is important to allow the parties in conflict to help define what behaviors are acceptable for the discussion, it is the leader’s responsibility to set the tone. The leader needs to define how the discussion will take place, who is responsible for what, and what tools will be used. If the parties can’t agree on behavior, then the leader must step in, state the acceptable behaviors, and gain agreement from the parties to abide by those standards.
Choose a Neutral Location.
Select a comfortable location where the parties can feel comfortable and will view the place as providing a level playing field. This will help to diffuse some of the emotion and improve the likelihood of a constructive conversation.
Set the Tone.
As a leader, you need to remain open to hearing all sides of the situation. Start with saying something positive about each of the parties involved. This sets a tone of respect for everyone involved and shows that your focus is on solving the problem, not blaming the people. If you have already jumped to conclusions about the situation, the parties will feel that and lose trust in your ability to be objective.
Use Teachable Moments.
When conflicts arise, so does the opportunity to teach or learn. Being a leader is seeing these conflicts as a means to address what were previously hidden problems. Ideally you want to get the parties to work together to resolve the conflict. That means taking the time to guide them to the conclusion that they may be too emotionally involved to notice.
Sometimes things are plainly wrong, and criticism is the only valid way to deal with it. You must address the issue but also support the good work that was done. Leaders offer guidance, so that problems can be fixed without attaching personal emotions to those involved.
Once you have gone through the conflict resolution process, then it’s time to act. Don’t let the decision wait and leave the parties lingering. You don’t become a strong leader by procrastinating; you become a strong leader by taking action.
Putting It All Together
Conflict can have positive consequences. Along with resolving a specific issue, when handled appropriately, conflict can increase trust, improve productivity, and strengthen the relationship between those involved. Whether or not any of these opportunities are seized, depends upon the leadership provided.
Proficient conflict resolution skills are essential for every successful leader. You must be able to listen objectively to fully understand the issue, be able to separate people’s emotions from the issues, maintain a positive relationship with everyone involved in the process, and move everyone involved toward a resolution. This is a complicated process with lots of moving parts and utilizing a large set of skills. Managing conflict requires you to manage both a process and the people involved. That is a true sign of leadership.