No pulled punches: Managing conflict in the workplace

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By Dino Signore

I don’t know many business owners who wake up and say, “Wow, I’m really looking forward to a full day of conflict.” Yet if you’re an effective leader, conflict is going to show up on a regular basis because a leader’s role is to set strategy and orchestrate change — and change typically triggers contention. Professional facilitators must also be adept at conflict management; as they strive to help a group be more effective, individuals may resist due to some sense of loss. Granted, you don’t have to enjoy conflict — but you do need to manage it.

I asked Shannon Jennings, a friend and former colleague, about her approach to conflict management. President of Syncovate LLC and an adjunct professor at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, Shannon not only specializes in business psychology and facilitator training, she also counsels children of divorced families, making her no stranger to confrontation.”

Shannon points out that a good starting point for any business leader or facilitator is to be aware of their own default approach to conflict. “Although there’s a continuum, two basic orientations prevail — being conflict avoidant or a conflict junkie,” she says, noting that neither extreme is desirable. “If you have a sense that emotions around conflict are bad and should be tapped down, then you’re going to postpone addressing a sensitive issue, and the situation will probably grow worse. On the other hand, if you live for conflict, if it jazzes you up and makes your day, then you’re going to create it when it doesn’t need to be there.”

“Finding that sweet spot in the middle takes some conscious effort,” she adds. “Some good questions to ask include: What do you believe about conflict? And how did you come to learn these beliefs?”

It’s also important to understand the default style of your employees or the group you’re trying to facilitate. If individuals lean to conflict avoidance, they’re going to want to sit on the sidelines, and you may have to coach them to participate in difficult discussions. As for conflict junkies, they’ll be eager to jump into the fray and may require guidance to restrain themselves. As a facilitator you’re trying to operate from a neutral space, while getting both sides to listen to each other and participate. (For a deeper dive into how people handle conflict, check out this online assessment tool from the U.S. Institute of  Peace.)

Although conflict is ever present, leaders often want to sweep it under the rug and strive for artificial harmony. Bad idea. If you don’t find ways to address conflict in a constructive way, it can transform into destructive behavior, such as employee turnover, absenteeism, disengagement and even violence. With that in mind, here is a loose framework for conflict management.

  • Talk about the issue, not the person.
  • No name calling.
  • Have facts to support your accusations — not opinions, but facts.

The type of industry your company is in and its particular culture will also shape what appropriate conflict looks like, Shannon adds. “Having ground rules that align with the organization’s vision and values will help a group reference their behavior.”

Allow for some initial venting —  When conflict erupts, don’t try to squelch it. Avoid saying “let’s calm down,” which sounds judgmental and will only escalate emotions in the room. Instead, say something like: “Let’s slow it down here. This is an important issue, and I’d like to capture some notes.”

Think of yourself as traffic control —  Stay calm, but assertive, which admittedly is a tough balancing act. Someone has to manage the debate; otherwise, the conversation can go everywhere. Ask people about their concerns and needs. Try to get people to focus on facts, not opinions. Remind people of the rules of engagement, especially if someone is violating them.

As the discussion continues, ask participants to restate what they hear each other saying. The mere act of paraphrasing can help people better understand opposing views. Point out the different interpretations people are making; You might even go to a whiteboard and write: Joe is saying X, and Sally is saying X.

Moving to closure — At some point, however, you need to wrap things up. Ask individuals in the group if they have any further concerns that haven’t been expressed. The leader or facilitator can start offering some recommendations. (If you’re the business owner, you may be making the final decision.)

A quick side note: In “Life of Brian,” the Monty Python movie, there’s a scene where the characters start to complain about the Romans. John Cleese says “They’ve taken everything we had. Not just from us but from our fathers — and from our father’s fathers.” Then Eric Idle chimes in: “And from our father’s fathers’ fathers. And from our father’s fathers’ fathers’ fathers.” The point here: don’t let people get stuck in belaboring mode. (If you hear an individual repeating the same concerns over and over, call them on it. For example, “No, Joe, we’ve already determined that was an opinion, not a fact.”

Some final words

As a leader you want to bring out the best in your team during difficult discussions, for healthy debate is a critical thinking skill. In a healthy debate, participants:

  • Are open to hearing other people’s ideas.
  • Listen and respond to an idea — even if they don’t agree.
  • Seek to understand others.
  • Stay objective and focus on facts.

Conversely, in dysfunctional debate, participants:

  • Assume they’re right.
  • State their ideas without responding to opposing views.
  • Have no interest in how others see the situation.
  • Attack or blame others — and hot topics are trashed or ignored.

In my opinion, you should never have a meeting that doesn’t have some element of conflict; otherwise, you’ve wasted time. Managed properly, conflict can bring out better thinking in your team.

I like how Shannon compares conflict to energy flow: “It transforms and moves around people,” she explains. “There are things that reinforce conflict and make it grow, and there are balancing loops that bring it back down. It’s never standing still and never goes away. So, it’s not something to be afraid of or shy away from.”

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Dino Signore, PhD
Manager of Entrepreneurial Education
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Second stage is an important inflection point for entrepreneurs, says Dino Signore, the foundation's manager of entrepreneurial education. On the plus side, second-stagers have a proven product or service under their belts and have attracted initial customers, so survival is no longer a daily concern. Yet as they strive to gain a stronger foothold in the market and win more customers, second-stagers now face more strategic issues, such as building infrastructure to scale, honing their competitive edge and expanding into new markets.