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Don't "Resolve" Conflict (Manage It!)

Conflict is one of the hardest things leaders deal with. Most people find conflict pretty scary and few of us are taught how to handle it well. A common corporate response to conflict seems to be: “bury your head in the sand till things are so horrible you have to react.” That leads to bad morale, declining productivity, and high turnover. We think the best approach is to treat conflict realistically – it’s not going away, and really it shouldn’t – and to recognize that it needs to be managed routinely, but that it may never be resolved.

Doing this really well does require a change in the culture, which is hard work, and requires a serious leadership commitment. But there are some basic things that can be done and some easy methods to implement that will allow any organization to make important first steps even if they don’t address the big picture.

Part of the challenge is that many of us carry beliefs that say conflict is a problem unless it’s been “resolved.” It’s a problem unless there’s no conflict left. Sadly, that conflict-free state doesn’t actually exist in functional organizations. If it does exist, it means the company has died or is about to. As long as we pretend that conflict itself is the problem – as opposed to the negative consequences of unmanaged conflict, such as bitterness, resentment, sabotage, stonewalling, etc. – we will be trapped in a fantasy world

One easy definition of conflict is anytime you have two or more people, ideas, or values trying to occupy the same space. That can be as low-key as two people approaching each other on the sidewalk and either running into or avoiding running into each other. We do that all the time and only notice it when our efforts to avoid collision don’t work. This is an example of conflict negotiation that is effortless and mostly unconscious.

“Two or more occupying the same space” can also be as serious as one group of shareholders trying to oust the current CEO and replace her with a new one. That one will not seem effortless or mostly unconscious.

We think two ideas are important to understand. First, life simply includes conflict. It’s inevitable and necessary. Second, conflicts exist along a spectrum of low-level to very high-level. How you address the low-level conflicts directly affects how likely you are to have high-level conflicts.

Some conflicts are exciting and energizing – new opportunities, new vision of the future, new leadership, acquisitions. Some conflicts are critical but routine, like making a budget and allocating scarce resources to different deserving projects. And some are kind of boring or not even noticed, like getting past the other guy on the sidewalk without physical altercation. The ones that bug us are the ones that feel personal. We usually get more upset by conflicts we think are about people, not about problems. Accordingly, the more complex a potential change is, the more likely that inter-personal dynamics will enter in and generate more of the disturbing kind of conflict.

Consultant Speed Leas has done very useful work in describing these levels and recommending strategies for dealing effectively with them. Leas describes a Level 1 “problem to solve” as the lowest level and notes we don’t usually even experience it as a conflict (he actually has a Level 0, just below Level 1 and calls it “Depression”). An example would be Mary wants to meet with a prospect at 3:30 but the conference room with a good view is booked for a small operations team meeting at that time. It’s easy enough for Mary to ask if the team could switch their meeting to the next room over. If they agree, all is well. As long as we’re not yet annoyed with others or worried they’re trying to harm us, issues of two people trying to occupy the same space at once (which is the most basic definition of a conflict) just don’t seem like a big deal.

Once a conflict becomes a “contest” (mid-level conflict), though, the dynamics are very different and it’s much harder to address. What if the team meeting in the good conference room thinks Mary acts like she’s more important than everybody else and assumes that her priorities should rule the day? What if they’re feeling frustrated by her demands and her rudeness and have begun putting her requests at the end of the queue? What if Mary has been talking about the Operations Manager with other advisors and suggesting that she’s not competent for her role? Any of these would change the way a “simple request” to change locations would be interpreted and responded to. These changes will tend to mean that folks experience the conflict as about a person, not about a problem.

One of the most important things leaders can do is to implement methods of addressing low-level conflicts – problems to solve and disagreements – directly, with effective listening, basic communication skills, and routine and reliable methods of gathering data from employees about how things are going and then promptly and productively responding to what those data reveal. We’ll talk about those methods in Part 2.

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