Conflict management is often a code word for “dealing with idiots who don’t have a clue”. Unfortunately, we’ve all been guilty of this attitude and it generally bites us in the ass at home and especially at work. My goal in coaching leaders is to get them to see conflict management as more than a buzzword on their resume and a mere formality in leadership training. Conflict management first involves compassion and releasing judgments about ourselves and others and in seeing that within our team, it’s highly improbable that good people are 100% wrong all of the time.
Establishing A Safe Zone
The first practical step in conflict management is establishing a zone of absolute security that says conflict is not only healthy but an essential part of the decision making process. It’s like creating a metaphorical Switzerland: a zone of total neutrality to say what is necessary (criticism and encouragement) to achieve win-win results.
The reason why this step is so important is that many companies, and more specifically managers, rule by fiat instead of consensus and occasional dissent. Any whiff of dissent causes even the most well-intentioned leaders to rule with an iron grip, thereby squelching any chance of creative, contributing ideas to take even one breath of life. Therefore, the job of welcoming and encouraging healthy and respectful dissent goes to you managers to establish an essential environment of safety. When employees feel safe to conflict and even argue bad and unclear ideas, they’re essentially challenged to fight for what is best for the company, instead of misdirecting energies into protecting their own interests.
Fight For What’s Right Instead of Fighting To Be Right
With that essential practical step established, leaders must encourage their team to fight for what the company stands for (in terms of corporate values and goals) and check their own ego at the door of the safe zone. Fight for what’s right, instead of fighting to be right, more simply.
Team members must be able to freely (and OPENLY) challenge ideas and products that might not be in line with what the company stands for and challenge leaders to better clarify and communicate what could very well be good ideas, but bad explanation or poor execution. This also goes to the executive management of letting go of their own egos – the least senior person (and least paid) could very well the have best ideas simply because they’re closer to the problem. Conflict management means honoring input from all levels and from all perspectives and judge their impact and value accordingly.
Conflicts Are Opportunities For Decision Making
Conflicts are opportunities and essential parts of the decision making process. They tell the decision maker who and what is missing from the equation (either, for example, essential input or more data) and whether or not there is a hidden benefit or caveat to the decision itself (and if the risks are well worth the reward).
Getting caught up in the drama of conflict is a major risk, so be sure there is a decision maker who is not only invested, but has their own skin on the line, to set a deadline and clear goal for the outcome, allowing him or herself and their team members the creativity, freedom, and safety to develop creative solutions.
Getting Along In The Sandbox
Adults all function with adequate conflict management skills and tools – many, not so great. We can’t have Mom handling our sandbox arguments for us anymore, so we have to play nice and not only learn to get along, but to achieve results through conflict.
Coach Leslie’s Questions To Ask Yourself:
1. Is my work environment a safe place to have conflicting ideas and healthy dissent? If not, am I responsible for this problem? Do we let ourselves come up with creative solutions or do we fight for fixed solutions?
2. Do I get worked up when someone disagrees with me? What am I afraid of when it comes to healthy debate? Am I unprepared? Do I lack insight? Have I checked my ego at the door?
3. Do I let the data speak for itself or do I get caught up in opinions? Which matters to me more?
4. Do I honor the process of decision making and allow conflict to have its place and purpose? Why or why not? And, how can I change my attitudes/behaviors?
5. Who has a stake in the decision making? Are they involved in the process? Are the deadlines for decision making established?
Leslie Juvin-Acker is the contributing career and leadership expert at Malakye.com, a job board for the action sports and lifestyle industries based in Southern California.