Let’s be honest; most human beings dislike conflict.  They avoid it because it makes them feel uncomfortable AND they believe it is either an affront to their authority or a sign of disharmony.

To paraphrase Gordon Gecko (Michael Douglas in the movie Wall Street), “Conflict is Good.”

From conflict comes change and from change comes innovation and progress.  As a result, we can summarize the value of conflict as good when it:

  • Creates change that makes things better
  • Produces innovation and new ideas that create profitability
  • Brings people together because they know their views are respected
  • Changes organizational behavior.

Conflict is nothing more than a difference of opinion.  Two parties believe that something is or is not something else.  In other words, they want the same results; they just have different ways of getting there.  Diversity of thought and ideas occurs that is in conflict – naturally.

This shared goal, but different approach, should not be allowed to develop into open warfare and sabotage or subterfuge.  Rather, it should be managed in a way that focuses on ideas, not personal egos, or life positions.  Good managers of conflict can identify conflict escalation and intervene, redirecting it to a positive action instead of its destructive path.  Conflict escalates under a pretty predictable path.  Knowing these steps helps Leaders manage the situation and return it to a problem-solving mode.  These steps are:

  1. Finger-pointing, accusations, name-calling – emotion enters the discussion, tempers flare
  2. Single issues become multiple issues. – Minimally related ancillary issues become as important as the central issue, or unrelated issues get injected into the discussion
  3. Facts and specifics are replaced with broad generalities – Individuals stop focusing in facts, inject personality and draw entire relationship history into the discussion
  4. One-upmanship and verbal destruction – The focus becomes more of getting even, proving others wrong instead of common ground and collaboration
  5. Participants in the matter increase. – People divide into groups or factions that now oppose one another like Armies on a battlefield.

Most often, escalation of conflict follows these steps and knowing them can help a leader control conflict in a positive and profitable way.

One of the Premier Conflict Management Systems available today is the Thomas- Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI).  It divides managing conflict into 5 distinct methods, each different in their approach but all having value.  These 5 methods are:

  • Accommodating
  • Compromising
  • Competing
  • Collaborating
  • Avoiding

Each method has positives and negatives to it.  The method itself is applicable in different situations, for example, avoiding conflict would be applicable when tempers are flaring, and participants have completely lost sight of the issue.  Avoiding conflict by getting everyone to walk away to cool off is an appropriate strategy for that time.  However, avoiding conflict altogether is not an appropriate method and indicates a weakness is avoiding is overused.

An often misunderstood conflict management tool is compromise.  We all state we want our leaders to compromise, yet what we really want them to do is collaborate.  When we compromise, we give up something in exchange for getting something back.  It oftentimes is a win-lose method.  Collaboration requires flexibility and openness on the part of participants resulting in better decisions and solutions.  These outcomes are more easily accepted by the entire organization.  The challenge is the amount of energy and emotional intelligence it takes to accomplish success.

The single greatest barrier to managing conflict is also, on occasion, a conflict management tool.  Weak leaders overuse it, while strong leaders know when to use it.  In a negative way it is called “My way or the highway”, TKI calls it Competing, and sometimes it’s all ego.  The healthy way to refer to it is decisiveness combined with commitment.  When used properly it can create a strong business driving force.  Used negatively and it destroys creativity and the strength of your workforce.

A leader who can effectively manage conflict can build a strong team that achieves great success.  Conflict makes good organizations because:

It gets employees involved in the business – Some call that engagement, others call it teamwork.  Whatever you choose to call it, sharing differences and different viewpoints build stronger businesses.  That means employees have to be free to disagree.

It builds better relationships – Simply put, when employees know they can disagree, and do so in a respectful manner, it strengthens the relationships that build success.  This helps remove interpersonal conflicts that otherwise get in the way of successful outcomes.  Better relationships build better morale which provides the energy for the business to be successful.

It has been said that in some organizations, conflict will never happen because it is culturally incompatible with the organization.  I beg to differ, and I will use the U.S. Military as an example.  The military leader does not walk into a room, void of any input, and state “this is how it will be.”  Prior to that announcement some discussion of ideas occurred that led to a decision. When I was in the U.S. Army, we called that “dissent and commit.”  Various ideas, some completely opposite of others, were shared.  This led to an informed decision that considered multipole variables.  So we “dissented” within the group and then “committed” to a course of action.  Then General Colin Powell, in attempting to eliminate an absence of conflict simply said, “If everybody is thinking the same thing, no one is thinking.”

Building a good business with conflict as a tool takes training and practice.  Not everyone can do it by themselves, and all of us will make mistakes.  We have to master the skill of conflict management in order to maximize the potential of a company’s greatest competitive advantage – the diversity of its workforce.