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Being a leader is relatively easy when everyone gets along. But when the going gets tough, and conflicts arise and escalate, leadership becomes exponentially more difficult.
Now, in and of itself, conflict isn't necessarily a bad thing. Some might say it's essential to solving complex problems and accomplishing innovative breakthroughs. However, sometimes disagreements devolve into counterproductive relationships and even potentially dangerous confrontations.
In these instances, leaders need to know how to recognize conflict, react appropriately and resolve the situation in the best interests of their respective organizations.
A Popular Model From Myers-Briggs
The first thing every leader should know about conflict resolution is that it’s a skill set that even highly introverted individuals can learn. Among the most popular frameworks for doing so is the Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument, currently marketed by Myers-Briggs. Study conflict resolution for any amount of time and you’ll likely encounter this model or something like it.
Many people assume that “conflict resolution” is a coded term for “compromise.” However, the TKCMI presents users with five strategies that range in intensity from unassertive to assertive and uncooperative to cooperative. As these words imply, there are situations in which a leader needs to put his or her foot down, so to speak, and others in which a less assertive approach is more appropriate. The five strategies are:
1. Forcing. This is the most assertive and least cooperative of approaches. Here, a leader uses his or her recognized authority to resolve a conflict without trying to satisfy the other party’s concerns (or either party’s if you’re tackling a dispute between two employees). A better name for this strategy may be “enforcing,” because you’re essentially enforcing stated organizational policies or rules — or even the law itself.
2. Collaborating. In this situation, a leader may be somewhat assertive but also greatly cooperative with the party or parties involved. You’re seeking to understand the concerns driving the conflict and find a solution that fully (or mostly) satisfies everyone.
3. Compromising. This strategy sits squarely in the middle of the TKCMI model. A leader seeking to find a compromise exercises moderate assertiveness and cooperation. The goal is to identify a solution that, as compromises aim to do, partly satisfies both sides of a disagreement.
4. Accommodating. In some instances, a leader must step carefully, minimize assertiveness and aim to satisfy one party’s concerns almost entirely. This is the most cooperative and least assertive strategy.
5. Avoiding. “Conflict avoidant” is a label many people apply to themselves, but it’s also a strategy to consider in very limited instances — such as when two employees are better off working out a disagreement on their own. Here, a leader is the least assertive and most uncooperative — basically ignoring an ongoing conflict and doing nothing to resolve it.
The Three R’s
With the TKCMI model (or something else like it) in mind, leaders can work on developing and refining their skill sets in conflict resolution. To help further simplify often complex situations, focus on the three R’s:
Recognize. Some leaders thrive on conflict to the point where they don’t even realize they’re creating it. Others avoid conflict so much that they work in a bubble and think everything is fine.
A good leader recognizes conflict and decides quickly whether it’s productive or potentially counterproductive. If the disagreement falls into the latter category, the leader then immediately decides which of the five strategies above (or perhaps others) fit the situation.
React. How a leader reacts to conflict can make all the difference. Procrastination generally isn’t a good thing. The longer a counterproductive conflict festers, the more likely it is to hurt productivity, quality and potentially even to escalate to a litigious or dangerous situation.
• Listen actively
• Ask reasonable, appropriate questions and
• Show empathy, acknowledging everyone’s feelings and valid points.
Resolve. This would be the most important part of conflict resolution, of course. Yet finding a solution to a conflict is usually the most difficult aspect of the undertaking. Leaders should be prepared to exercise patience and provide themselves with the time and privacy needed to find the right answer.
When an employee demands an answer, or two employees are verbally sparring, leaders can face immense pressure to solve the problem right then and there. However, unless the matter is relatively simple (that is, a policy or rule clearly applies), a leader should reserve the right to hear the case and set forth a judgment later. There may be instances when the HR department or an attorney needs to get involved as well.
As holds true for any skill set, the optimal first step in developing it is training. Many leaders are never trained in formal conflict resolution measures, so they never develop the proper skills. Or they develop their own methods over time — sometimes this works out well, sometimes not so well.
The good news is it’s never too late. If your organization hasn’t addressed the topic, you could arrange for an intensive seminar or a series of training courses to cover some of the major concepts associated with conflict resolution. Once your leaders know how to recognize and handle potentially destructive disputes, their confidence will rise and so should your organization’s morale, trust and productivity.
Lynda Silsbee is Founder and President of the Alliance for Leadership Acceleration. She has spent more than 30 years creating and leading high performance teams. Along with the other LEAP Certified Coaches, she reports that helping managers make the LEAP to leader is one of the most fulfilling aspects of her work.