Conflict is a natural byproduct of people’s interactions in organizations and can’t be – nor should it be – eliminated. Conflict arises because organizational members have different goals and organizations have scarce resources. In addition, contemporary management practices such as empowerment and self-managed work teams where people’s work is interdependent and must be coordinated create the potential for conflict. The ability to manage conflict is, therefore, one of the most important skills a manager needs. It fact, when human resource managers of Fortune 1000 companies were asked to rank the importance of certain management skills, conflict management was in the top ten.
You can develop your skills at managing conflict if you use the following six behaviors.
- Assess the nature of the conflict
The first thing you should do is assess the source of the conflict. Has the conflict arisen because of communication differences (semantic difficulties, misunderstandings, or noise in the communication channel)? Is the conflict the result of job or organizational structural differentiation such as disagreements over goals, decision alternatives, performance criteria, or resource allocations? Or is the conflict due to personal differences (individual idiosyncrasies or personal value system)? Also, are there any positive aspects to the conflict that make it more functional than dysfunctional?
- Decide if this is a conflict that needs to be handled
Some conflicts don’t justify the manager’s attention. Some aren’t worth the effort and others might be unmanageable. Try to avoid trivial conflicts and focus on the ones that need attention.
- Evaluate the persons involved in the conflict
It’s important that you identify and be familiar with all individuals involved with the conflict. What interests or concerns does each person have? What’s important to them? Who has power? What’s at stake? What’s their time frame? What are their personalities, feelings and resources? You’re likely to manage a conflict better if you’re able to view the conflict situation from the perspective of the conflicting parties.
- Know your options for handling the conflict
Managers can choose from five conflict management options: avoidance, accommodation, forcing, compromise, and collaboration. Here’s a short description of each:
Avoidance: Withdrawing from or suppressing the conflict. Most appropriate when conflict is trivial, when emotions are running high and time is needed for the conflicting parties to cool down, or when the potential disruption from a more assertive action outweighs the benefits of resolution.
Accommodation: Maintaining harmonious relationships by placing others’ needs and concerns above your own. Most viable when the issue under dispute isn’t that important to you or when you want to “build up credits” for later issues.
Forcing: satisfying one’s own needs at the expense of another’s. Works well when you need a quick resolution on important issues where unpopular actions must be taken and when commitment by others to your solution isn’t crucial.
Compromise: A solution to conflict in which each party gives up something of value. Can be an optimum strategy when conflicting parties are about equal in power, when it’s desirable to achieve a temporary solution to a complex issue, or when time pressures demand an expedient solution.
Collaboration: The ultimate win-win situation in which all parties to a conflict seek to satisfy their interests. It’s the best conflict option when time pressures are minimal, when all parties seriously want a win-win solution, and when the issue is too important to be compromised.
- Deal with the emotional aspects of conflict
During conflict, emotions (anger, fear, resentment, etc.) tend to run high. Therefore, it’s usually better to deal with those aspects rather than trying to settle substantive aspects of the conflict. This typically involves three steps. First, treat the other person with respect by being aware of your own emotions and keeping them under control. Next, listen to the other person’s point of view and make that person feel understood. Finally, briefly state your own views, needs, and feelings.
Start by looking at your own preferred conflict-handling style. You can assess this using the self-assessment exercise “What’s my preferred conflict handling style?” Then, look at your goals for resolving the conflict: what is the importance of the conflict issue? How concerned are you about maintaining long-term supportive interpersonal relations? And how quickly does the conflict need to be resolved?
All other things being equal, if the issue is critical to the organization’s or unit’s success, collaboration is preferred. If sustaining relationships is important, the best strategies in order of preference are accommodation, collaboration, compromise, and avoidance. If it’s crucial to resolve the conflict as quickly as possible, the best options are forcing, accommodation, and compromise, in that order.
Finally, knowing the source of the conflict can help you decide the best option. Communication based conflicts that revolve around misinformation and misunderstandings are best resolved by collaboration. Conflicts based on personal differences, however, arise out of dissimilarities in values and personalities. These types of conflicts are susceptible to avoidance because these differences are often deeply rooted. However, managers who have to resolve these types of conflicts frequently rely on forcing, not so much because it’s best for the parties, but because it works. Finally, structural conflicts can be resolved by choosing to use most of the conflict resolution options.