5 Top Tips for Managing Conflict for Managers & Leaders
Tips for Managing Conflict for Managers & Leaders
1 Recognise that one size does not fit all
Using the same approach to conflict in every situation will not get you the best results; different circumstances warrant different approaches and the law of diminishing returns applies. It’s important to weigh the best outcome you might achieve against the time needed to get you there. Does the disagreement really merit the work involved in collaboration? While a ‘win–win’ approach might eventually ensure you’re both happy with where you end up, some issues may be better and more quickly addressed through your offering concessions, agreeing to compromise – or simply avoiding disagreement entirely.
You will almost certainly have a preferred style of handling conflict, to which you will default. The trick is to identify this and question whether it best suits the situation as you approach each issue.
2 Seek to understand underlying emotions
We have a mental habit of assuming that we do good things because we are trying to be good and bad things because situations left us no choice. However, when it comes to others, we tend to assume that they do good things as a consequence of the situation, and bad things because of who they really are. So it’s essential to dig beneath the surface of the position the other party is taking to get to their genuine concern and their needs.
What you see in your ‘opponent’ may not be a true representation of how they are actually feeling inside. You can’t expect to penetrate their psyche, particularly when you may already be at loggerheads, but you can offer them the chance to see beyond your own surface impression, and the chances they may reciprocate are good. Many skilled negotiators share thoughts and rationale, but most warring parties forget even to do this much.
But there’s more. Explaining your feelings may be difficult, but can create the kind of breakthroughs that strengthen relationships in the long term. So take time to spell out your personal needs from the situation and the emotional impact it has on you. Use ‘I’ statements, and don’t attribute blame. Invite the other party to do the same. Worse case, you’ll have raised the quality of the dialogue to a level of honesty that takes much of the heat out of the situation.
3 Don’t be seduced by ‘competitive arousal’
This is a term coined by Deepak Malhotra of Harvard Business School and it describes vividly a state in which the desire to ‘win at any cost’ dominates. As Malhotra suggests: “When we see our [adversaries] not just as opponents but as enemies, we often lose sight of our real objective. A new objective emerges: to beat the other side, whatever the cost.” This kind of interpersonal rivalry can set whole teams at war with one another.
It’s seductive because it creates a certain energy (the term ‘arousal’ is not used lightly), and can provide a rallying call for team togetherness. So avoid dismissing your partner-in-conflict (eg as ‘incompetent’) or undermining them to your team, and try and recall the strengths you’ve noted in them in the past. As Malhotra advises: “If the perception of rivalry is too much to bear, consider bringing in someone else from your team to take over the discussion. [A resolution can only be reached by someone] who can evaluate the situation more objectively, and is not overcome by rivalry-fuelled competitive arousal”.
4 Life goes on tomorrow…and reputations last forever
Burning bridges is never, ever, a good thing. Whilst the satisfaction of unloading all your feelings may be immense in the short term, there are unimagined ways in which your words can come back to haunt you. It is wise, in the heat of conflict, to try and give yourself time to gather self-control, even if this means venting with someone you trust, finding your own space for a while, or ‘sleeping on it’.
Often the publicity a major conflict can generate creates a communal suspense, and it’s easy to find the spotlight that an argument casts attractive. Be drawn by these at your peril. Most people work in relatively incestuous industries and even if you ultimately leave a job as a result of failure to resolve an issue, it’s unlikely your reputation won’t at some point follow you into the next organisation. If you’ve ever broken something of value, remind yourself how you felt when you awoke next morning – and avoid repeating that same mistake.
5 Know what you don’t like about yourself
We often don’t like in others what causes us discomfort in ourselves, so self awareness is a key asset for a lifetime of effective conflict management. Completing a psychometric inventory and receiving feedback from a trained professional is a great way to accomplish this, and is something you can revisit in many situations, throughout your career. Write down five traits that rattle you when see them in others, and be aware that these are trigger points for you.
Other forms of ‘transference’ include becoming exercised about an issue because a separate irritating event has occurred and you have not yet processed it properly, or because it reignites destructive feelings from the past. It’s possible, also, that at the root of your frustration with an individual now is the fact that they remind you of someone else with whom you’re already angry. In relationships where egos routinely clash, certain reactions can become habitual and take over even before you are aware of them. So, take time to ask yourself why this issue is so important to you and whether the emotions you’re feeling are truly appropriate to this particular, present situation.
If all else fails, ask another person to mediate – preferably someone who is trained and who is seen as impartial by everyone involved.
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