Conflict is drama, and how people deal with conflict shows you the kind of people they are.
When two or more people spend time together, they’re bound to come into conflict, and when happens, conflict resolution is in order. But even though conflict is a universal inevitability in the workplace, many managers don’t know how to deal with it effectively.
In 2008 CPP Inc. (the people who publish the Myers-Briggs Assessment and the Thoman Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument Assessment) conducted a huge study about conflict in the workplace. Their research yielded a startling discovery: “U.S. employees spend 2.8 hours per week dealing with conflict, equating to approximately $359 billion in paid hours.” Granted, this was ten years ago, so no doubt those numbers have changed a bit since then (they are probably even higher now!). But they still provide a useful lens through which to view the negative impact of workplace conflict.
Don’t think conflict is a big problem for you? If you work the numbers, you may end up with a different perspective. To see how much workplace conflict might be costing your organization, simply multiply 2.8 by the hourly wage of each of your employees, then add all of those numbers together. You might be surprised by the total!
Fortunately, even though workplace conflict can be disruptive and destructive, it can also be addressed in positive and productive ways! Before that can happen, though, you have to know what you’re dealing with.
The Three Stages of Conflict
Unlike the goddess Athena, who emerged from Zeus’s head fully grown (and dressed for battle!), conflicts aren’t fully developed when they first appear. Rather, they start small—often innocuously, even—and can go overlooked (or unaddressed) for some time.
When you become aware of an existing conflict, don’t assume that the apocalypse is at your doorstep. And don’t ignore it, either. Instead, try to figure out just how bad things are, keeping in mind that there are different degrees and types of strife.
Stage 1: Mild annoyance
Conflict usually first arises when people experience irritation at other people’s behavior. These behaviors tend to be small, “everyday” things, and these conflicts are often handled by either tolerating or ignoring them. (In other words, there is some recognition—either conscious or unconscious—that the problems aren’t serious enough to warrant much attention.) When an active resolution is necessary, it’s based on dealing with the specific issue, not on addressing some “bigger” concern (such as someone’s personality).
Stage 2: Increased stakes
At this point, the conflict has escalated to the point that the pursuit of self-interest on all sides makes this feel like a win–lose situation to everyone involved. As far as everyone is concerned, serious issues are involved (a perception that may or may not be accurate), and no one wants to give up what they want or “lose face” even a bit. Here, personalities—not issues—are at the root of the problem.
Stage 3: Open warfare
When a conflict reaches this stage, things have blown up to the point that not only do the participants believe that only one party can win, but they also believe that the other parties must somehow “pay.” Sides are chosen, and leaders emerge—and winning (rather than actually solving the problem) becomes the goal. Emotions dominate the discourse, and logic and reason can’t get a word in edgewise.
Savvy managers, however, know how important it is to nip problems in the bud whenever possible. Left unresolved, conflicts rarely go away; rather, they continue to grow in scope and eventually get so big that they become difficult—but not impossible!—to resolve.
Five Styles of Conflict Management
Once you have a sense of what level of conflict you’re dealing with, then it’s time to figure out how to resolve it. But you can’t just jump in with a step-by-step plan. First you need to step back and take in the big picture.
Difficult conflicts call for different tactics when addressing them: each conflict has its own unique set of circumstances and participants, and what works for one may not work for another. That’s why managers should never adopt “one size fits all” approaches to conflict resolution, but should instead take the time to carefully analyze each situation and determine which management style (or combination of styles) is most appropriate for dealing with it.
- the issue is a trivial one (or not as important as other, more pressing problems)
- you are unable to handle the situation (perhaps because of your own personal or emotional involvement, for example, or because someone else might be better suited to address the issue)
- the conflict would be better addressed at another time or place (and perhaps after you’ve done more preparation)
- a fair resolution does not appear possible
Pros: This style give you more preparation time. It’s also a low-stress approach to dealing with minor fires that don’t need to be put out immediately (such as stage 1 conflicts).
Cons: A delay might weaken or even totally undermine your position. Also, if at least one of the involved parties expects you to take action, your failure to do so might damage your relationship with that party.
- the other party has more at stake in the situation than you do
- you feel that continuing to press an issue would do more harm than good
- you know that you are in the wrong
Pros: Being accommodating on one issue can help you protect your interest in an area that you consider more important.
Cons: If you get a reputation for being too accommodating, people may try to take advantage of you; also, it may be difficult for you to reach win–win solutions if people expect you to give in some or most of the time. Additionally, this approach can alienate your supporters.
In this style a person pursues his or her own concerns (in spite of any resistance from other parties); this approach may involve promoting one viewpoint at the expense of another or maintaining firm resistance to another person’s actions. Under certain circumstances it may be the most appropriate approach:
- when all other, less forceful methods have been ineffective (and particularly if the conflict has been unresolved for a long time)
- when you need to assert yourself against pressure
- when a dangerous situation needs to be handled immediately (for example, if someone’s well-being is at risk)
Pros: Conflicts are often resolved quickly. Acting forcefully and decisively can garner you your colleagues’ respect and boost your self-esteem, especially if you successfully eliminate (or at least mitigate) an extremely negative situation.
Cons: The strong-arm technique can damage your workplace relationships, especially those with other parties involved in these conflicts. Also, using this style may give your opponents the latitude to use it themselves.
- consensus is important
- the interests of all (or at least multiple) stakeholders carry equal value
- a long-term relationship needs to be preserved
- no one party wants to be solely responsible for the outcome of the resolution
- a high level of trust exists among the parties
Pros: The problem actually gets resolved! And because the result is a win–win situation, everyone is happy. By strengthening mutual respect and trust, this approach can make future collaboration more likely.
Cons: Because this style requires more work and time than other approaches, it may not be the optimal choice when tight deadlines are looming; also, collaboration can be a stressful process until it’s concluded. If all parties don’t commit to this approach and don’t trust each other, then this approach cannot successfully resolve the issue.
In this style, all parties look for an expedient and mutually acceptable solution that partially satisfies both parties. This style may be the best bet when one or more of the following conditions exists:
- the goals aren’t critical enough to warrant the use of more forceful or effort-intensive options
- it’s the quickest and most expedient way to handle a complex or important issue
- the parties don’t know or trust each other well enough yet to attempt full-on collaboration
- other approaches have proven ineffective
Pros: When time is of the essence, this can provide a solution while still leaving open the possibility of using collaboration in the future to build this out to a complete win–win for all parties. This style can also provide immediate mitigation of the stress and tension that accompany conflicts.
Cons: This style doesn’t build long-term trust, and some sort of oversight and check-ins to make sure that all parties fulfill their agreements and get what they expect. Also, because each party doesn’t get everything it wants, the solution may end up being a lose–lose arrangement.
Once you’ve determined what kind of conflict you have on your hands and what conflict-management style would be most effective for this particular issue and with these particular parties, then it’s time to move to the next item on your to-do list: come up with a detailed plan for resolving the conflict. Fortunately, you don’t have to start from scratch on that, because I’ve done most of the legwork for you (drawing on my experiences during my many years in corporate America). To read details about that process, don’t miss my next post!