Conflict is never pleasant – by its nature, it sets two or more people against each other. Unresolved, it becomes increasingly destructive and therefore needs to be addressed as early as possible before it causes too much damage.
During the in-house leadership programmes I conduct, conflict management is naturally one of the skills we cover and invariably, in the discussions on the matter, delegates express their discomfort with conflict and their understandable reluctance to deal with it. They’re usually quite surprised (and greatly relieved) when I tell them that their reluctance is a very normal response.
No normal, well adjusted, emotionally mature person actively seeks to create conflict. They would seek to resolve any difference or disagreement in an amicable and mutually beneficial way. People who resort to conflict as a strategy don’t, for a number of reasons, have the desire, skills or qualities to find ways to resolve differences amicably.
The burden therefore rests on those who have the position of manager or team leader to attempt to resolve the conflict.
So when does most conflict management start? The short answer is … too late.
Typically, conflicts are never really a surprise. They usually start as something fairly minor (relative to what they end up as) which is ignored, avoided or neglected.
For example, when employees believe they are not paid enough, they ask for a raise. How their employer responds to their request is critically important. If their employer ignores them in the hope that they will go away, they’re making a big mistake. What then happens is the employees feel they have not been heard and their desperation level starts rising exponentially until, if the ignoring continues, it spirals out of control, resulting in unpleasant and often violent reaction and action in an attempt to shock the employer into responding.
While this is a simplified overview of a very complex issue, it captures the gist of most conflict situations where one party expresses a frustration and the other party fails to get the message and respond accordingly.
If you want to be really smart about managing conflict, consider my answer to the question I posed in this editorial’s title. When is the best time to start managing conflict? The answer is … long before the conflict happens.
And how do you do that? By building and managing a close, warm relationship with the parties you manage or lead.
Never underestimate the value and power of relationships. In fact, relationships are the new business currency. Without relationships, you don’t get very far.
If you actively build strong relationships with your people, when a conflict arises, you have a relationship on which to fall back. That relationship enables you to apply the four steps in effectively managing a conflict:
- Communicate openly;
- Listen actively;
- Review the options; and
- Find a Win-Win Solution.
If a sound relationship is in place, there will be open communication and active listening, which I turn creates a platform for the parties to sit down and consider options that will result in a win-win solution.
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that, when all is running smoothly, there’s no need to work at your relationships. That’s exactly the time you should be doing so, so that, when the conflict raises its head, you’ve got the relationship currency to deal with the conflict in a positive and productive way. Invest now in your relationships so that you get a good return when you need it. You won’t get a return on an investment you never made!
Alan Hosking is the Publisher of HR Future magazine, www.hrfuture.net and @HRFuturemag. He is an internationally recognised authority on leadership competencies for the future and teaches experienced and younger business leaders how to lead with empathy, compassion, integrity, purpose and agility. He has been an Age Management Coach for two decades. In 2018, he was named by US-based web site Disruptordaily.com as one of the “Top 25 Future of Work Influencers to Follow on Twitter“. In 2020, he was named one of the “Top 200 Global Power Thought Leaders to watch in 2021” by peopleHum in India. In 2022, he has been named on the Power List of the “Top 200 Biggest Voices in Leadership in 2022” by LeaderHum.