Leadership and effective conflict management go hand in hand.
Can you imagine a movie or a good story without a conflict, a problem, or a challenge?
I am a ‘Happy End’ kind of movie person. If a movie does not have a happy end, I will not like the film.
A Happy End only exists when there was some conflict. Otherwise, it was just a ‘happy movie’ which I am not aware they exist, or if they do, no one watches them.
If Nemo did not wander off, he would not have been found and reunited with his father in the end. He would just have played with his friends happily ever after – which is not a movie I need to watch.
“Conflict is inevitable, but combat is optional.” (Max Lucado)
Like in a good movie, in leadership, teams, and really in any relationship, conflict contributes to success. And yes, sometimes that means we need to create conflict to strengthen our team, develop new products, or bring change in any form that leads to success.
Leadership rises and falls with effective conflict management.
Mostly, conflict appears without us having to create it, which I will get back to why that is.
Of course, conflict can also destroy. That is why many of us are afraid of conflict.
“Peace is not the absence of conflict; it is the ability to handle conflict by peaceful means.” (Ronald Reagan)
It all depends on how everyone involved navigates conflicts, and in an organisational environment, effective conflict management is up to leadership.
Conflict Management is one of those topics we all know is important, but it quickly gets thrown in the ‘too hard basket’ because not many people know how to do it effectively.
I believe an essential step to becoming more effective in Conflict Management as a leader is to be aware of the following seven principles.
To manage a conflict or solve a problem we first need to understand where conflicts come from.
A conflict basically is a clash of interest between two or more people, a perceived disharmony of goals, values, expectations, or ideas.
It is an emotional process, as conflict always involves emotions. The key is how we manage them (find more on that under Emotional Intelligence).
Leadership theory says, “The root causes of conflict are unfulfilled or threatened human needs including security, identity, dignity, recognition, and justice.” (Herbert C. Kelman)
One of the first steps to manage conflicts well is to determine what is really going on.
Once we have identified the source of a conflict, we need to find out what goals we pursue.
W. B. Gudykunst defines three goals of conflict. Resource goals are about achieving outcomes; relational goals are about maintaining relationships, and identity goals are about protecting face and self-esteem. Depending on what issues you are dealing with the people around you, ask yourself what goal you want to achieve.
For example, if you are dealing with a value-based conflict where your team member is not as reliable as you expect, ask yourself what you want to achieve here:
There are three types of conflicts.
Intrapersonal conflict occurs within an individual; interpersonal conflict appears between individuals, and societal conflict is between societies and nations.
As much as they are all interconnected, we will focus on interpersonal conflict for this blog post’s purpose.
When you hear the word ‘conflict’ what comes to mind? What is your view of conflict?
There are generally two assumptions we have developed over time. Which one you hold is usually up to your experiences with conflict.
I used to struggle with conflicts. I would freeze, not knowing what to say or how to handle it, and often cut people out instead of solving the issues on hand. My assumption was that conflict is bad, harmful to relationships, and can usually not be solved.
Over time I learned how to manage conflict better and realised that conflict is a normal part of any relationship; conflict is good. And if I wanted to avoid conflict, I would need to avoid relationships. I learned that conflict can be useful and is often necessary for relieving tensions, grow stronger relationships, and to change the status quo for the better.
As pointed out before, effective conflict management is closely related to effective leadership. There are three reasons why we need to manage conflicts as leaders.
Firstly, problems get increasingly solved instead of holding us back from what we could achieve. Secondly, interpersonal relationships become stronger.
And thirdly, the stress that is caused by unresolved conflict decreases. The bottom line here is that effective CM will impact your bottom line for good.
Another part of effective CM is the distinction between the process and the outcome. According to W. B. Gudykunst, both can either be constructive or destructive.
Have you ever been in a conflict where you got what you wanted, but the process had destroyed relationships, chewed up resources, and ruined your integrity?
We can be constructive in the process if we define the conflict clearly, express our ideas transparently, value and respect each other, and if we use effective communication skills.
One of The 7 habits of highly effective people (book by Stephen R. Covey) is “Seek first to understand, and then to be understood.” This habit requires effective listening skills which are essential in leadership and CM.
We can also be constructive in the outcome if we feel understood and accepted, are committed to the solution and satisfied with the decision. The ideal outcome also includes our abilities to manage future conflicts to increase.
And finally, THIS is my favourite part of Conflict Management! Understanding and applying different Conflict Management styles has helped me and so many leaders I have worked with significantly to manage conflict more effectively.
We need to know the different styles because they are like a Conflict Management toolbox. And each style has its place. There is no perfect style because each situation is different. Therefore, it is crucial to be able to know and apply each style to be most effective.
I will cover the five styles according to Kilman and Thomas in my next blog post. But for now, we need to understand that communication and conflict are inseparable.
The way we communicate will impact the way we manage conflicts. Find out more about communicating effectively within a team here.
One question I have asked myself more often recently is:
What kind of story would you like to tell?
As much as some conflicts are painful, expensive, or end up being unnecessary, let’s choose to manage them well and become more effective leaders and conflict managers.
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