Your new ally: Four steps to constructive conflict

Your new ally: Four steps to constructive conflict

Staff do it, execs do it, and managers spend nearly half their time doing it – so if you do do it, it’s worth doing well.

It’s conflict. Conflict can be a source of creative energy, and can help solve problems, improve relationships and encourage listening, reflective thinking and open communications, a packed room of participants at the Institute of Chartered Accountants Business Forum heard yesterday.

But, more often, conflict is a waste of time.

Worse, it is destructive, closing down communication, spawning simmering tensions and destroying trust between leaders and their teams.

Conflict is expensive, Noel Posus, a director of executive coach service, Incredible Awareness, explained. “The average employee spends 2.1 hours per week dealing with conflict and the average manager one to two days a week,” he said. “When a manager is seen as sensitive and emotionally intelligent, only an estimated 3.7 days of work is missed due to things like stress per year. Insensitive managers have staff off on 6.2 days of sick leave due to stress per year.”

The primary mistake managers make is to focus on the content of conflict – what is actually wrong. A more effective approach is to focus first on building relationships and develop processes with staff, customers and partners to withstand conflict, and reap its benefits, rather than fall prey to its destructive forces. The content of the conflict is more likely to be resolved once those two elements are in place.

Despite all this, only 44% of organisations globally train managers in handling conflict.

What sparks conflict

There are nine “hot button” behaviours, Posus explained, that are triggers to drive conflict into the stratosphere of destruction. Watch out for those who are:

  • Unreliable: Make commitments and don’t follow through, late to meetings and don’t take crises seriously.
  • Overly analytical: Focus on details and not the big picture, analyse every possible outcome, slow to decide and keep others waiting for unreasonable periods of time.
  • Unappreciative: Fails to praise or reward effort, don’t offer encouragement, overly critical, don’t say thank you when it is commonsense to do so.
  • Aloof: Isolated, detached and distant, don’t seek outside input, formal, delegate without guidance or feedback.
  • Micro-managing: Continually monitor people’s work, orchestrate every move, obsessively anxious about deadlines progress and budgets, perfectionistic.
  • Self-centred: Think they are always right, put their needs first, insensitive to other’s needs, take credit without acknowledging others.
  • Abrasive: Unpleasant interpersonal style, lack social skills, undiplomatic, rude, insensitive, sarcastic.
  • Untrustworthy: Exploitive, manipulative behaviour, use other people for their own purposes, unethical, undermine others and take credit for their work, withhold critical information.
  • Hostile: Lose their temper, throw tantrums, scream, swear, act in angry and aggressive ways, highly impatient and judgemental, use fear and power to intimidate people.

And the worst of this impressive list of sins?

“Untrustworthiness – or even the belief that someone is being untrustworthy – creates more than half (55%) of all workplace conflict,” Posus said. “The more work you put into improving trust in your organisation, your relationships, with your customers, and really meaning it, the less conflict you are likely to have.”

The big approach to conflict

Posus advises leaders to broaden their approach to conflict, adopting strategies to manage conflict before it happens, during and afterwards.

For example, Posus says leaders can ask employees before there is a conflict about their preferred way to receive feedback, what they have learnt from previous conflict, and what they want from a leader in the event of a conflict.

During conflict, leaders can listen, be silent, summarise what they have heard, and ask those involved what they would like to happen.

After conflict, leaders can open a conversation about how it was managed, lessons learnt and how they can improve their conflict management skills.

Participants then discussed in groups how to apply this approach to four steps in making conflicts constructive:

  1. Building relationships: This includes dynamic listening (bringing energy to listening), dynamic communication and criticising constructively.
  2. Managing emotions: This includes taking time out, controlling anger, reaching out and expressing emotions.
  3. Resolving conflict: This includes taking action, cooperating, dynamic conflict resolution.
  4. Accepting conflict: This includes self-appraisal, adapting, solutions when conflict can’t be resolved.

How to make it work

Despite the two hour session full of tips, statistics and practice, Posus warned participants against walking back into the office and implementing new conflict resolution strategies.

Instead, he recommends taking the ideas back to foster discussions about how to approach conflict, and encouraged participants to use their own reflective and critical thinking skills to judging the approaches that might work best in their own work environment.

Managers need to improve; 44% of employees rate their managers conflict resolution skills as poor.

On the upside, employees hate conflict just as much as managers, and will typically support any efforts their leader makes to improve.


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