Additionally, it is human nature to want to be liked and this does not change just because you move up in an organization. Even CEOs I have worked with have this desire. The difference is, they know that conflict comes with the territory and it is, at times, necessary in order that our differences in opinions be revealed and, from there, solutions can be created.
Conflict gets a bad reputation but the reality is that not all conflict is bad. Conflict, when handled correctly, can be beneficial for our relationships, for our growth, and for our organizations.
Here are 10 things effective leaders do to handle conflict without damaging relationships or losing their head.
Stop Avoiding It
Oftentimes the number one mistake people make is to avoid conflict hoping it will go away. It rarely does. Instead the situation continues to build and becomes less likely to be managed effectively. George Kohlrieser, author of Hostage at the Table, shares the perfect analogy. He says conflict is like a fish under the table. What happens when you leave the fish there for a week? Two weeks? How about a month? It stinks so bad, you have no choice but to get it from under the table. Now you have a bigger mess to clean up than if you would have dealt with the fish right away.
That’s exactly what happens when you don’t deal with conflict at the early stages. If you are a leader, it is imperative that you learn how to deal with conflict effectively. If you are the type of person who avoids conflict or who lets others handle it when it should be you, you will lose the respect of those you lead very fast.
This was the case for a leader we will call Tom. While he had made it to the top position of his company as the CEO, he was still not good at handling conflict. He wanted to always be the transformational, calm, and charismatic CEO. He would make his “second in command” handle the conflict so he could remain the “good guy”. When he first got to the organization, everyone thought of him as a transformational leader. Not long after, people started losing respect for him when they noticed he would not address issues directly with them. Nobody likes to be treated this way. People want to know their leader will tell them where they stand, no matter how difficult it is.
Let conflict be resolved at the lowest level in your organization
Many times as a leader, you get people coming to you to try to solve their problems. It goes something like this:
Employee: “Joe at the marketing department is not willing to support my latest initiative. Can you talk to him?”
Leader: “Have you discussed this issue with Joe?”
Employee: “Well, no, because he said he had other priorities to take care of.”
One of the greatest leadership lessons the military taught me is that issues need to be resolved at the lowest levels. You don’t bother your boss, unless you have tried everything to resolve the problem at your level, with your peers. There are times when two managers will not be able to come to an agreement and that’s when you can intervene by coaching them and, if needed, making the decision. This helps your employees learn to resolve conflict on their own, which is critical as they move up in the organization. As a leader, don’t be afraid to ask your employees what they did to solve the conflict at their level. If their answer is nothing, then send them back to try to solve it on their own. If they don’t know how, coach them, give them the tools, and send them on their way to solve it.
Do your homework
Before you approach someone, you must do some work to make sure you have the right approach to the situation. Make sure you have all the facts not just the “he said, she said”. Try to reserve judgment until you have talked to all the people who are involved.
Before you have the meeting to discuss the issue, ask yourself some or all of the following questions about the other party (depending on the situation):
- What is the source of the conflict: values, goals, resources, emotions/feelings or tasks/processes?
- What motivates him/her?
- What would be a win situation for him/her for this issue?
- What would they be willing to compromise?
- What would they not be willing to compromise?
- What are their values?
- What are their triggers/hot buttons/pet peeves?
- Am I the best person to talk to this individual about this issue or is there someone else whom he/she would be more receptive to?
Be clear on what you wish to accomplish
If you don’t know what you want to accomplish during the meeting or what your ideal outcome is, you will not prepare effectively. You must be really clear on how you want this conflict to be resolved. Once you know that, you can decide what conflict resolution style to use.
Understand yours and the other party’s conflict resolution style
There are 5 conflict resolution styles. Every person is different and has a preferred one or maybe a mixture of them. Tom Hallett from MindTools did a great job explaining the conflict resolution styles as following:
- Competitive: People who tend toward a competitive style take a firm stand, and know what they want. They usually operate from a position of power, drawn from things like position, rank, expertise, or persuasive ability. This style can be useful when there is an emergency and a decision needs to be made fast; when the decision is unpopular; or when defending against someone who is trying to exploit the situation selfishly. However it can leave people feeling bruised, unsatisfied and resentful when used in less urgent situations.
- Collaborative: People tending toward a collaborative style try to meet the needs of all people involved. These people can be highly assertive but unlike the competitor, they cooperate effectively and acknowledge that everyone is important. This style is useful when you need to bring together a variety of viewpoints to get the best solution; when there have been previous conflicts in the group; or when the situation is too important for a simple trade-off.
- Compromising: People who prefer a compromising style try to find a solution that will at least partially satisfy everyone. Everyone is expected to give up something, and the compromiser him- or herself also expects to relinquish something. Compromise is useful when the cost of conflict is higher than the cost of losing ground, when equal strength opponents are at a standstill and when there is a deadline looming.
- Accommodating: This style indicates a willingness to meet the needs of others at the expense of the person's own needs. The accommodator often knows when to give in to others, but can be persuaded to surrender a position even when it is not warranted. This person is not assertive but is highly cooperative. Accommodation is appropriate when the issues matter more to the other party, when peace is more valuable than winning, or when you want to be in a position to collect on this "favor" you gave. However people may not return favors, and overall this approach is unlikely to give the best outcomes.
- Avoiding: People tending toward this style seek to evade the conflict entirely. This style is typified by delegating controversial decisions, accepting default decisions, and not wanting to hurt anyone's feelings. It can be appropriate when victory is impossible, when the controversy is trivial, or when someone else is in a better position to solve the problem. However, in many situations, this is a weak and ineffective approach to take.
My clients and I have had wonderful results when we role play before approaching the individual with whom we are in conflict. You can role play with a close friend, coach, family member or you can just do it yourself, playing both roles. Either way is effective. The key here is to go over what you want to say in a way that is non-judgmental and that does not set any of the other person’s triggers. Imagine the worst response this person can say to each of the things you have to say and come up with a plan to respond to them in a non-defensive way (sticking to the facts or asking a question), and in a calm and collective way. The reason for this is that we are usually nervous about conflict because we don’t know what the other person will do and we worry they will react in a negative way. This exercise prepares you for the worst case scenario which will allow you to be in control of your emotions. 99% of the time, the actual conversation will not be even close to the worst case scenario. You will feel like it was a walk in the park. I am yet to have a client who has not come back to me, after doing this exercise, thinking that the conversation was a lot easier than they imagined.
After thinking about what’s the worst that can happen and preparing for it, start visualizing what you actually want to happen during the conversation. What would be the ideal outcome? See yourself and the other person being empathetic, calm, collective, and receptive.
Find the right time and place
It is critical that you find the right time and place, not only for you but for the other person, to have this important conversation. If you get to work and have to deal with other issues at work, then you may want to postpone the meeting. Same with the other person, if you see they are not at their best, it might not be the best time. Find a private place where you will not be interrupted.
Stay calm and collected during the conversation
Start the conversation by saying how you feel about the situation and that you may be misunderstanding it so you want to hear that person’s perspective. This will help the other person realize that you are not there to blame him/her but that you truly want to understand what is going on and how to solve it together. When you address something with another person, do not blame them or attack their character. Simply stick to the facts and how you feel. No matter what the other person says, you must not take it personally. Understand that you had time to prepare for this encounter while the other person has not. It is human nature to become defensive as the first response, but if you stay calm, collected and neutral, the other person will realize you are not a threat and will be more open to the conversation.
Once, when I assumed a new leadership position, there was a gentleman who disliked me from the moment I took over and who resisted me at every turn. I decided to have a conversation with him. I started the conversation by saying, “John (not his real name), I was wondering if I have done something to offend you. I feel as if there is some tension between us.” This allowed me to present the issue but not blame him for it; instead I was assuming responsibility for the relationship. We got to the heart of the issue and eventually solved it. But it was not solved over one meeting. It was a work in progress to gain his trust and win him over, which brings me to my final point.
Conflict is not always solved in one meeting
Human relations are complex and while we would want conflict to be solved in one meeting, it is not always the case. As a leader, you must have the patience to work with others to solve conflict over time by following up and building trust through your commitment to solve the problem and by ensuring your words match your actions. Do not promise something at the meeting only to not do it.
Next time you have to deal with conflict, look at it as an opportunity to build stronger relationships and refine your leadership skills.
Share in the comment section below how you have solved conflict in the past without losing your head or damaging relationships
Hallet, T. (n.d.). Conflict Resolution: Resolving Rationally and Effectively. Retrieved from http://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newLDR_81.htm
Kohlrieser, G. (2006). Hostage at the Table: How leaders can overcome conflict, influence others, and raise performance. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.