“When conflict is ignored—especially at the top—the result will be an enterprise that competes more passionately with itself than with its competitors.”
— Howard M. Guttman, When Goliaths Clash, 2008.
In my experience working with organizations, there are three factors behind most organizational conflicts:
1. Differences in behavior and communication styles
2. Differences in priorities and values
3. Workplace conditions, including poor communications from leaders
There is a strong link between the ability to resolve conflict and one’s perceived effectiveness as a leader. If you are in charge of people, you know how much of your time gets spent putting out fires, particularly interpersonal ones. In the work I do with managers, some tell me that as much as 20 percent of their time is consumed by taking care of conflict. Some personalities just seem to clash and it’s important to determine why two people rub each other the wrong way.
We work in a culture that values democratic processes and individual freedom. Some people encourage debate. And I don’t necessarily think this is a bad thing, as new ideas often spring from those who refuse to “go along just to get along.” Of course, there are others who run away from debate. I believe that conflict should be neither suppressed nor ignored within an organization. When it goes unnoticed or is overlooked, it only gets worse and lays the groundwork for a highly stressed work environment. Learning to manage through conflict is a skill leaders will need to be better at as we rise from the ashes of the pandemic. Anytime there are changes of the magnitude we’ve seen over the past couple of years, we can expect to see a rise in conflict. Trend analysts
are predicting conflict of all kinds, including workplace, will continue to rise because people face increased pressure in their work and home environments.
You’ll never be able to completely get rid of conflict, and I don’t believe that is the direction you want to take either. As mentioned above, conflict has its benefits when handled correctly. I’ve seen companies take the approach of ignoring conflict or trying to eliminate it altogether and having their efforts result in disaster. If managed well, conflict can stimulate creativity, motivate people to stretch themselves, encourage peer-to-peer learning and help teams move beyond the status quo. Your task, as a leader and manager, is to conduct tough conversations that help address workplace conflicts without wasting time. Conflict isn’t something to take lightly.
Tough conversations are hard to have, worth having, but not worth risking poor outcomes. If you’d like some support in meeting conflict head-on, reach out to me. I’d love to help.