Conflict? Talk It Out

Given today’s competitive business environment, leaders of companies around the world are striving to learn how to manage the conflicts that inevitably arise in the face of change.

Some causes of conflict are not new — personality differences, disparate interpretations of the organization’s mission and goals, and people being asked to do more with less. But some are very new.

Roles and responsibilities are often unclear as a multigenerational workforce merges in a shifting matrix where everyone must continually adapt to the newest technology. Conflict is a natural byproduct of change — and today’s leaders need to know how to navigate intense and emotionally charged discussions while continuing to foster employee engagement.

Open, vibrant and direct communication is important in creative conflict resolution, although it is no surprise that some leaders are reluctant to enter into these challenging conversations.

When conflicts arise and are ignored or mishandled, it can produce negative results such as:

  • Generational, racial or gender misunderstandings.
  • Ethical dilemmas that are unaddressed until they hit a crisis point.
  • Complex issues that become oversimplified and polarized.
  • Pessimistic, powerless employees at every level who erode organizational morale.
  • Environments where a lack of know-how or intolerance of differences preclude creative problem-solving.
  • Overworked employees who seldom experience the satisfaction of a job well done.
  • People so tethered to technology that they lose connection to self, others and nature as well as potential benefits of those connections.
  • A significant lack of alignment on strategy among senior leaders because of an undercurrent of instability throughout the organization.
  • Lack of quiet time for restorative or innovative thinking.

The worst outcome of all may be people losing the ability to see the effect their decisions and actions have on a range of other people, sectors and societies. 

Jim Irvine, manager of training and organizational development with Nissan Group of North America, said the increasing pressure on leaders to do more is creating miscommunication. “This focus on doing more faster can lead to miscommunication, suspicion and conflict,” he said.

Likewise, leaders must be alert to new and escalating dynamics as organizations become increasingly multicultural, multilingual and multigenerational. If not carefully managed, these changing dynamics can lead to dramatically increased opportunities for misunderstanding and conflict.

Dealing With Inherited Challenges

In “Integral Leadership: The Next Half-Step,” John Forman and Laurel Ross describe four aspects of healthy leadership. Leaders can use this four-quadrant model to help understand and develop strategies for addressing conflict situations.

Quadrant 1: Creating the structures that support innovation, efficiency, outstanding service, transparency and honest conversations about every aspect of the enterprise. Most cultural change models focus on this quadrant.

Quadrant 2: Creating cultures of trust and connection where leaders flexibly respond to their employees’ needs for direction and support, and where relationship-building and conflict-resolution skills are embedded in the culture. Most communication and conflict-resolution skills training, and some leadership training, focus on this quadrant.

Quadrant 3: Demonstrating the capacity and willingness to coach, give feedback and create accountability systems so that actual behavior change is obvious. Most coaching models focus on this quadrant.

Quadrant 4: Internally mastering open, dynamic ways of engaging in constructive conflict by dealing with the inner response to triggers like the inclination to be harsh or to shut down. Most executive coaching focuses on this quadrant.

Wise leaders focus on growth in all four quadrants with a goal of creating innovative, engaged and mindful cultures where they and their stakeholders constantly increase their capacity to see widely and deeply as they address the challenges of change and conflict.

Creating a Safe Place

Dealing with conflict always calls for more communication, not less. Withholding information or avoiding difficult discussions tends to make things worse. Leaders must be able to address sensitive subjects in real time.

Using a process to guide challenging conversations can help all parties speak up without alienating others. Listening with profound attention is a key component of this process, even though the listener may feel triggered to speak by what is being said.

Karen Adams, president and CEO of Alberta Pensions Services Corp., said she believes in creating an environment of over-communication.

“The key to dealing with conflict and engaging in difficult conversations is to simply have a lot of conversations,” she said. “A difficult conversation is much easier to have when it is simply one of many conversations. It’s simpler to resolve conflict when you already have a strong relationship with a strong foundation of trust. And how do you build that? By talking to each other — a lot.

“At APS, we have established an intentionally broad, multilayered, multimedia communications approach,” Adams continued. “At its core are personal relationships and regular, scheduled conversations — primarily between manager and direct report, but not limited to that. We use our intranet for interactive communications, too. And we hold a lot of social and companywide events so that people can get to know one another. No one likes to engage in difficult conversations. No one enjoys conflict. But it’s a lot easier when you already have a relationship — and you build that through lots of communication.”

5 Steps for Tackling Tough Conversations

1. State concerns directly. Communicate in private and in a way that doesn’t alienate other people. Use “I” statements to describe your experience of the behavior you are seeing and to understand the essence of the issue. Avoid sarcastic or condescending remarks.

2. Probe for more information to gain a deeper understanding. Learn how to get more information from someone who might be hesitant to talk. Be patient and ask open-ended questions. Drive out fear and support a culture where speaking up serves the team in everyday and difficult situations.

3. Engage others through whole-hearted listening. Be able to listen even when it is uncomfortable, and work with inner triggers so you can focus and understand what the other person is saying. Try to quiet your inner self-talk that is busy planning your response. It is critical to be fully present throughout, especially while listening.

4. Attend to body language. Be able to spot discrepancies between what you are hearing and what you are seeing. If you witness this behavior, avoid the temptation to move on. Check it out.

5. Keep forward focused. Resist the urge to move forward before everyone is ready. It is a delicate balance to make sure that everyone has been heard while keeping the focus on moving forward. Sometimes going slower is faster if the clean up costs for not taking the time to thoroughly explore an issue will be severe.

Rachel Eryn Kalish and Pat Zigarmi

Even if an organization has the most elegant communications model, there are times when leaders won’t — or can’t — use it. Sometimes one party in the conversation is simply too triggered to get past their own fight/flight/freeze response. That is why Quadrant 4, which involves working on one’s own emotional responses to conflict, is so important for 21st century leaders.

As Nissan’s Irvine said: “The foundation of healthy communication in the workplace rests on the leader’s personal credibility and trusting relationships, and both are necessary in order for the leader to effectively mediate the conflict of others. High-trust relationships are critical to developing and establishing an environment where conflict can become a healthy and productive part of an organization’s innovation and improvement strategy.”

The Impact of Neurobiology

Recent advances in neuroscience also point to biological causes. The amygdala, part of the brain’s limbic system, is hardwired to perceive threats and address them by fighting, fleeing or freezing.

This can quickly manifest as triggered behavior such as excessive arguing, harsh criticism of others or extreme impatience. If leaders cannot manage these behaviors, either in themselves or others, in skillful conversations, they can become overwhelmed, unproductive and unable to respond in a timely way to crucial issues.

Another biological obstacle indicates there may be opposing parts of the human brain between task and relationship orientations. When people’s brains are more task-oriented, they focus on getting the job done fast and well. When people’s brains are more relationship-oriented, they focus on attending to people’s needs and feelings. Leaders whose orientations flow between these two parts of the brain are the most effective, efficient, and healthy, according to Richard Boyatzis, Kylie Rochford and Anthony Jack in a 2014 Frontiers in Human Neuroscience article. This biological obstacle is not always taken into account.

Leaders who are most effective at dealing with conflict have developed multiple traits. These leaders learn and model effective conflict resolution skills, and encourage and coach others how to use them. They work to create a structure for dealing openly with complex change and conflict while they build an environment of trust and depth. They use a set of core skills to guide them in conducting challenging conversations. And they are on the lookout for innovations large and small that may increase the well-being of their employees and their organization as well as the satisfaction of their customers.

“Successful leaders in our organization are those who have the ability to be flexible as the situation requires,” Nissan’s Irvine said. “They are both results focused and people focused. They actively seek out and appreciate others’ perspectives, opinions and points of view across functions, geographies and generations.”

Positive Aspects of Conflict

Many authors, including Joan Goldsmith and Kenneth Cloke in “Resolving Conflicts at Work: A Complete Guide for Everyone on the Job,” have written on the positive aspects of conflict, including how it can enhance the workplace with liberated energy, excitement, creativity and trust.

This is true only if the conflict is handled well. In this case, well means knowing there are skills able to be mastered that support emotional intelligence, workplace wellness and conflict resolution. These capacities are not at odds with each other but are dynamically intertwined.

Leaders who are adept at resolving conflict in the workplace exhibit compassion, both for their people and for our world.

They hold out a vision for all of us to live fuller lives. They seek to understand the truths of others and to appreciate the value of different perspectives in creating a better place to work and live. It’s true that no leader can embody all of these traits perfectly all of the time. But the leader who strives to model these qualities helps clear a path through these challenging times to make a positive difference in every life they touch.