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No matter how we try, some form of conflict will always exist within an organization. Even if everyone's headed in the same direction, there will be different ideas about the best way to get there. Conflict is not inherently bad, however. In fact, conflict is a natural by-product of a healthy business. Differing opinions are healthy because they bring a variety of ideas to a given situation.

We require conflict in order to grow. But the higher you go up the management chain, the more you may find that people try to avoid debates. It's important to distinguish between ideological conflict, destructive infighting, and interpersonal politics. Teams often avoid ideological conflict to avoid hurting other team member's feelings. This will only build tension. If issues aren’t resolved around ideas, personal attacks can sometimes take over. The end result is that the best decisions aren’t made, the best plans aren't carried out, or the most suited people aren’t brought on board.

During a strategic planning session with one of our clients there was a heated discussion regarding the opening of a new branch operation. Employees speaking up saved the company hundreds of thousands of dollars.

A Leader's Role in Creative Conflict

  • Encourage a culture of trust - Ensure all stakeholders are encouraged to voice their opinions.
  • Don’t prematurely disrupt arguments - Shutting people and ideas down early will result in resentment and bottled-up negative emotions. It also deprives your employees of the ability to develop conflict management skills.
  • Appropriately model conflict behaviour - it's possible to work through conflicting ideas and maintain integrity.
  • Never throw anyone under the bus - Respected leaders always take responsibility for the actions of their teams. Blaming others and pointing fingers is a sure fire way to lose the respect of your team.
  • Talk about personal problems behind closed doors - A leadership role will at times require action when personal problems are affecting work performance. Just as you would like your team to respect your privacy, you will need to do so with your employees.
  • Keep disputes focused on a matter of work - Don't let personal politics come into work conflicts. A disagreement over ideas is not so difficult to recover from, a personal attack can be a cancer in your workplace.
  • Never leave anyone behind - Your employees take note of everything you do. Taking care of all team members builds trust and respect.
  • Every person is equally important - Don't let position or anything else play into your decisions. All team members bring value and need to be treated with equal respect.
  • Opinions need to be heard - Make sure all voices at the table have a chance to speak. You never know where the next great idea will come from. Ensuring everyone on your team is heard is not just a matter of politeness, it can have a huge impact on your bottom line.
  • Don’t blame failure on one person - Teams win and lose together. As a leader, make sure that everyone on your team understands that.

The Dangers of Consensus

In recent years, some companies have engaged in a policy of management by consensus where nothing is done without the full and complete approval of the group. This can lead to situations where decisions become delayed, and necessary actions are not taken. Clear and timely decisions are the life-blood of a healthy organization's leadership.

It's important all stakeholders and team members know why decisions have been made and understand their role regardless of the decision. It's up to a leader to find ways to achieve buy-in when complete agreement is impossible. This is easier when stakeholders know that their opinions have been heard and considered. Good team members have a willingness to rally around whatever decision has been made. When there's ideological conflict, it's often helpful to ensure that all objections to the final decision have been noted. Stakeholders with varying opinions will find it easier to buy into an idea they don't love if they know their objections have been heard.

Managing Conflict

Conflict only becomes a problem when it's not dealt with properly. If decisions are avoided because of it, if opinions are ignored, or if people take decisions personally that they don't agree with, problems can ensue. The long-term solution is to head these types of problems off before they happen. Fortunately, there are a variety of methods that can be used to manage conflict. Following are a few that are helpful.

  1. No employee should have more than one manager — This has been said before, but it bears repeating here. When two or more managers direct the activities of one employee, that employee will inevitably experience conflicting demands for his time. This rule may occasionally be broken to allow for multi-tasking between departments or to permit someone to manage activities that affect different departments such as “safety” or “quality.” But when this happens, priorities must be established.
  2. Maintain open communication — Develop a culture that promotes dialogue. Employees must feel free to approach their managers with ideas and managers must provide honest and constructive feedback to their staff.
  3. Keep employees informed — Keep employees up-to-date with your company’s progress and plans. When employees don’t know what their future holds, it can make them feel uneasy and apprehensive.
  4. Involve employees in decision-making when they will be affected — Whenever possible, ask your employees for their opinions before making decisions that will affect them. If you find that you must make decisions that are different from their opinions, take the time to fully explain your decision. It's important that they don’t simply feel ignored.
  5. Avoid paternal management styles — Be careful to treat your employees like responsible adults and not like children. Certainly you or your managers will make final decisions whenever necessary, but domineering, controlling management styles have a detrimental effect on the free flow of communication.
  6. Develop a Conflict Resolution System — Despite your best efforts, conflict issues will arise, ones that cannot be resolved or defused on their own. When this happens, you need a system to kick in to resolve them.

Power Distance

In all cultures, there's some level of what we call "Power Distance" between authorities and subordinates. In a military or paternalistic culture, this distance can be vast. In other cultures, such as a sports team, this distance can be much smaller and much more easily mitigated. There are numerous examples of planes crashing due to a high power distance between pilot and co-pilot. In cultures where the individual in charge is unquestionable, although it may be difficult for us to understand, even in life-and-death situations, a subordinate will have a very difficult time speaking up when he should.

This was the case in the now famous story of 1997's Korean Air flight 801. In the 1990's Korean Air had more plane crashes than almost any other airline. Researchers believe that the high power distance between pilot and co-pilot made it difficult for the two to act like a team and fly modern planes, which are designed to be handled by a team of relative equals. Once Korean Air was aware of the root of the problem, they were able to fix it.

In your business, ensure everyone has the right to speak their mind and be heard. While (hopefully) your day-to-day situations are not matters of life and death, the ability for all employees to have input and be active team members will have a direct impact on the growth of your business.

Conflict Resolution System

When conflicts arise that cannot be resolved through the normal course of business, they can bring progress to a grinding halt. A conflict resolution system takes all such issues and forces them through to their conclusion. You might think of it as your “emergency back-up system.”

Following are some ideas on how to accomplish this. Some will be better suited to your business than others, but read through all of them before you make up your mind.

  1. Find a common ground — An in-house mediator can help those involved in a conflict to find the common ground between their conflicting opinions. Once they have agreed on one thing, it will be easier for them to agree on others. The mediator should then support their search for a new, mutually acceptable resolution.
  2. Bring in an outside party — If an in-house mediator is too close to the situation to be impartial, you can always bring in an external party. Sometimes a board member can fill this role nicely. They have the best interests of the company at heart, often know little about the internal workings of the company and understand its general purpose and strategy quite well. Independent, professional mediators can also be effective.
  3. Have a senior manager make the final decision — If conflicts arise that are more practical than personal, then sometimes the best solution is simply to have a senior manager listen carefully to everyone’s input, and then make a final decision. Everyone doesn’t always need to agree with a decision, but everyone does need to get behind a decision once it's made. In this situation, it must be made clear that once the decision is made, it's time to move on.
  4. Let the majority decide — Occasionally, it may be appropriate to bring all those involved together and have a vote. Not every business decision can be made democratically, but there are situations that are best resolved in this fashion. Decisions that impact the employees more than the corporate strategy are good examples.