Conflict occurs when two or more people’s differences escalate to a level that negatively affects or might affect productivity, quality, service, morale or working relationships. Conflict has many effects, both immediate and residual. Immediate effects might be obvious, like missing a deadline or losing a sale, or not so obvious, like absenteeism or lack of cooperation. Even after the conflict has been resolved, there can still be long-lasting residual effects on the working relationships of the parties involved.
Stages of Conflict
A personality conflict can start out very slowly and gain momentum without your noticing it. Likewise, judgments, prejudices, and divergent opinions can escalate to discord and, finally, to arguments. At any stage, conflict can have an outcome of either discovery or damage.
If conflict is escalating but you do nothing to help resolve it, damage is the ultimate result. On the other hand, if at any stage of a conflict you appropriately guide people toward resolving it, you could lead them to a path of discovery.
Signs of Escalation
Addressing Conflict with Key Principles
Resolution Tactics and When to Use to Use Them
Take No Action
When people have differing viewpoints but are still pursuing and achieving common business or organizational goals, you would take no action. Taking no action does not imply avoiding or ignoring the situation. Rather, it requires that you observe the situation and recognize that, if differences go unresolved, you might need to get involved. By taking no immediate action, you demonstrate your confidence in people’s ability to resolve their differing viewpoints.
You might choose to take no action when:
The coaching tactic requires behind-the-scenes involvement. It means coaching someone on how to resolve his or her conflict with a third party; it does not mean giving someone coaching for improvement in order to “fix” the conflict.
When using the coaching tactic, you help build others’ ability and commitment to resolving the conflict by modeling the skills and behaviors needed to conduct the discussion. You do so by asking questions that help to clarify the situation and its impact and by reinforcing the idea that each person’s viewpoint must be heard. You work together to generate possible approaches for resolving the conflict and to decide on the best next steps. You might act as a sounding board or even role-play a discussion. Finally, you bolster people’s confidence by encouraging them to handle the situation directly instead of relying on you to resolve the conflict.
You might choose the coaching resolution tactic when:
When Using the Coaching Tactic:
Mediating requires a greater degree of involvement than the first two resolution tactics. You take an active role in bringing the parties together, facilitating the discussion, and helping them develop workable solutions.
The goal of mediating is that the parties involved commit to resolving the conflict. You help them do this by describing the situation and asking them to consider the impact of the unresolved conflict on themselves and others. Once people see the potential for damage and recognize that you are there to help, not to blame or take sides, they can begin to identify causes of the conflict and, eventually, focus on solutions. By encouraging both parties’ involvement throughout the discussion, you build their confidence and commitment to a resolution, while demonstrating that you value their viewpoints.
You might choose this resolution tactic when:
When Using the Mediate Tactic:
In some situations, despite your best efforts, a conflict might evolve to the point that it interferes with productivity, teamwork, morale, and customers’ needs. When damage is occurring and you’ve tried everything else, your only option might be to take charge. When you take charge, you inform people of what they must do to resolve the conflict, reinforce their responsibility in carrying out the plan, and follow up to ensure that the plan is accomplishing its objective.
Often leaders think that there are only two approaches to resolving conflict: taking no action or taking charge. They might ignore the escalation of differences until the situation gets so bad that they have to take charge. Or they might think that taking charge is what leaders are supposed to do. Inappropriate use of this approach is a disservice to people. They never get the chance to learn to resolve conflict or to take responsibility for handling it. They’re likely to feel patronized and rebel against the leader’s prescribed approach. Taking charge should be used after you’ve tried coaching or mediating (perhaps several times).
You might choose this resolution tactic when:
The interaction process, illustrated below, equips you with the skills you need to address both kinds of needs as you use and apply the coaching or mediation resolution tactics.
On the other hand, if you recognize the signs of conflict—at any stage—and appropriately guide people toward resolving it, you can lead them on a path of discovery, in the form of new ideas or solutions, as well as improved partnerships, processes, products, or services. A new sense of teamwork and trust can emerge, strengthened by having survived the conflict. How skillfully you address the conflict, regardless of its stage, will determine its outcome.
Discovery or Damage
While differences in age, gender, personality, etc., might contribute to misunderstandings and conflict, here “differences” mean differing ideas, goals, or points of view. Such differences can promote creativity and innovation. Discussing opposing opinions and building on one another’s ideas can result in unique solutions and lead to positive, productive outcomes for the organization.
However, these same differences also can lead to conflict. Tight deadlines and heavy workloads can reduce people’s tolerance levels. Sometimes, processes force people into adversarial roles; they might have opposing goals or even the same goals, but different ways to achieve them.
The following signs indicate that differences are escalating in an unproductive way:
The following signs indicate that people are experiencing discord:
The following signs indicate that people are experiencing dispute:
You need to be alert to signs of escalating conflict to determine whether to intervene, and to what degree, in order to minimize potential damage. From taking no action to taking charge, each of the four resolution tactics requires an increase in your level of involvement.
When people interact, they generally have two kinds of needs:
|Who?||Where do I do it?|
|What Happened?||When do I do it?|
|Where it happened?||How do I do it?|
|How it happened?||How do I feel?|
|Why it happened?||What do I want?|
Reclassify the problem
The Outcome Factor
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