Conflict is inevitable in business and in relationships at work, and our experience is that most organizations and individuals find conflict uncomfortable and undesirable. While conflict can be unpleasant, disruptive, and often scary, the benefits of conflict – when handled well – outweigh the moments of discomfort.

Conflict is neither good nor bad; it is how individuals and organizations deal with it that makes it healthy or unhealthy. Healthy, productive conflict deepens relationships and trust amongst employees, produces innovative ideas, products, and services, and develops resilient and successful individuals and organizations.

How does your organization handle conflict? Is it healthy or unhealthy? Is it productive or does it create delays, inefficiencies, breakdowns, or undesired outcomes? We believe conflict can be healthy, productive, and positive, yet it requires leadership to set boundaries and guidelines for how to handle it and ensure that every employee develops the skills necessary to deal with conflict when it arises.

Here are our recommendations for an organization-wide proactive approach for dealing with conflict:

First and most importantly, leadership needs to clearly define how the organization handles conflict between individuals, teams, departments, offices (if multiple locations) and external contacts such as clients, vendors, or strategic partners. Just like an organization has a policy for dealing with terminations, it should also have one for dealing with conflict.

Key elements in a conflict policy include:

  • clear definition of what situations constitute conflict
  • the steps for handling conflict should it arise
  • what to do if those steps don’t work

Second, those in leadership and management positions should examine their beliefs around conflict. What we know is that our definition of and reaction to conflict originates from our experiences growing up in our family. While some families are comfortable with conflict, others avoid and silence it. How an organization deals with conflict is often a reflection of the leadership’s view of and reaction to conflict. Leadership’s clarity and a defined approach to conflict create a safe, motivating, and productive organization.

Third, all employees should be trained in key communication skills, including the power of non-verbal and verbal communication; giving and receiving feedback; avoiding triangles; and staying objective and managing reactions.

The Power of Non-Verbal and Verbal Communication

It’s often not the words you use but how you say them or what your body language conveys that creates a reaction in others. Being congruent means that your words and non-verbal language match the intention of your communication.

Giving and Receiving Feedback

How we give feedback and how we react to feedback that is given to us impacts effective communication. Managers need to be trained to give both positive and constructive feedback, and employees need to be trained in how to receive and respond to feedback given. Organizations that spend time on these skills develop a culture of learning rather than one of fear, blaming and finger-pointing, and an “us” vs. “them” mentality.

Avoiding Triangles

A communication triangle is created when an individual has an issue with someone and he/she, instead of going directly to that person, goes to other people to talk about that individual and/or issue. It often sounds like this – “Can you believe he said that?”, “Don’t you think it’s unfair that she did that?” Often viewed as “just getting it off my chest,” this type of interchange is unproductive and destructive to effective communication. All employees must be taught to engage in productive communication which starts with avoiding triangles and dealing directly with individuals with whom they have issues. WARNING: This is the most powerful shift an organization can make!!

Staying Objective and Managing Reactions

Conflict often arises when an individual interprets or assumes the intention of another’s words or actions. Sometimes our interpretations or assumptions are accurate but most times, they are not. We assume by someone’s posture that they are upset and that it must be something I/we did. We interpret the words, “this needs to be done” as an order versus a request that needs clarification.

The key to effective communication is to first recognize that another’s words or actions are not “truth” but merely their response to a situation. Second, we have a choice in whether we react or not based on how emotionally involved we allow ourselves to be in the situation, and third, that the best response is to “check out” the other person’s intention or ask for clarification on what was said or done. In the first example, one could say, “You look upset, what’s going on?” In the second example, the best response would be “When you say it needs to be done, can you be more specific – are you asking me to do it, or will others be involved? When specifically, does it need to be done?”

Don’t kid yourself, conflict can and will occur when two or more individuals work together. Taking a proactive, defined approach to handling conflict in your organization and training employees on effective communication skills will shorten the length of time that conflict impacts employees, their productivity, and the company’s culture.

As always, we are here to assist you in developing your processes and training your team members.

Theresa Gale