“We can work it out. Life is very short, and there’s no time for fussing and fighting my friends.” John Lennon and Paul McCartney wrote and sang those words many years ago. But these words are still relevant today, aren’t they? Conflict is an inevitable part of human relationships and exists in every organization and team. The good news is, conflict handled well can be healthy and lead to greater successes. The bad news is that conflict handled poorly can result in employee dissatisfaction, lower productivity, poor customer service, increased employee absenteeism and turnover, increased stress, and, in the worst case, litigation based on claims of harassment or hostile work environment. Author Thomas Isgar warned, “Conflict can destroy a team, which hasn’t spent time learning to deal with it.” I agree.
Let's start with a discussion of when conflict can be healthy. Healthy conflict occurs when there is a work environment where people can voice disagreements and have candid conversations about the important issues at hand. A healthy exchange of ideas and different viewpoints can result in sharper analysis, more creativity, and well-crafted initiatives moving forward. This type of healthy conflict creates a psychologically safe environment where teams can thrive.
Consultant Steve Goodier speaks to the value of different perspectives: “We don’t get harmony when everybody sings the same note. Only notes that are different can harmonize. The same is true with people.” The key is to disagree without being disagreeable, and once decisions are made to have everybody support them. Since there is potential for conflict to bring benefits when handled well, let's look at some keys to positively resolving conflict.
1) View Conflict as an Opportunity. Leadership guru Warren Bennis cut to the chase by saying, "Leaders do not avoid, repress, or deny conflict, but rather see it as an opportunity.” Healthy conflict resolution can improve the quality of our processes, initiatives, and relationships — and make our teams stronger.
2) Pick Your Battles. Some conflicts are minor and will resolve themselves without our intervention. Sometimes the best action we can take is no action.
3) Hit Conflict Head On. If a conflict is important enough to be addressed, let’s not avoid it but take it on and drive to a peaceful resolution. Unresolved conflicts can escalate and become harder to resolve as time drags on, so we are wise to resolve sooner versus later.
4) Stay Calm and Avoid Arguing. Conflicts escalate when we get angry. And we tend to stop listening to understand as we get angry. To remain calm, it's helpful to look at the big picture and realize that most disputes eventually get resolved, and very few have long-lasting consequences. Also, realize that arguing only makes things worse. Dale Carnegie, author of the all-time classic book How to Win Friends and Influence People wrote, “You can’t win an argument. You can’t because if you lose it, you lose it; and if you win it, you lose it.”
5) Listen to Understand. One of Stephen Covey's 7 Habits of Highly Effective people is to "Seek first to understand, then to be understood." Dean Rusk counseled, "One of the best ways to persuade others is with your ears — by listening to them.” By active listening, we dignify people and give them a chance to fully share their perspectives. We also build the foundation that can lead to acceptable resolutions.
6) Ask Good Questions and Gather Information. Few conflict situations are clear cut, so we need to ask good questions and gather information before jumping to conclusions. Good questions focus on asking what happened and soliciting relevant information. Open-ended questions such as, "Can you tell me what happened?" can draw out useful information in a non-judgmental manner.
7) Attack the Problem, not the Person. Personal attacks backfire, as Abigail Van Buren emphasized when she said, "people who fight fire with fire usually end up with ashes." And Mahatma Gandhi wrote, “An eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind.” Remember the goal is to resolve the conflict and underlying problems, not to punish the people who are involved in the conflict.
8) Practice the Power of the Apology. There have been times in my life where I said or did something that I later regretted – what about you? Since we are all human and will occasionally mess up, the wise thing to do is fess up and apologize. I appreciate this quote from author Lynn Johnson, “An apology is the superglue of life. It can repair just about anything.” Demonstrating humility and admitting our mistakes is good for us and sets a positive example for our team members.
9) Identify Points of Agreement and Disagreement. Henry Ford observed, "If there is any secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person's point of view and see things from that person's angle as well as your own." Author Harper Lee wrote, "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view.”
10) Look for the Win-Win. Edwards Deming encouraged us, "To adopt a new philosophy of cooperation (win-win) in which everybody wins.” Greg Anderson explains, "The Law of Win/Win says, "Let's not do it your way or my way; let's do it the best way."
11) Be Creative. Try brainstorming and thinking outside the box to find creative resolutions. Being creative with resolutions takes longer, but can yield a true win-win solution. Sometimes it can be helpful to look for ideas from others outside the team — such as from other teams inside or outside the organization, consultants, trade journals, conferences, books, webinars, etc.
12) Focus on the Future, not the Past. The secret to conflict resolution is to treat it like problem solving and focus on what can be done to resolve the immediate problem at hand. Once that is done, look at the past to analyze what went wrong, and then identify improvements so that future results meet expectations.
13) Celebrate Agreement. Reaching mutual agreement on what we will do to resolve the conflict is often stressful and hard work! Reaching agreement is also valuable and worth taking the time to celebrate — which may be as simple as a handshake, fist bump, or high five.
14) Develop a Resolution Plan. Once we have mutually agreed upon the resolution to the conflict, we need to document a resolution plan so there are clear action steps and assignment of responsibilities. Having a plan will increase the probability of the resolution being implemented as agreed upon.
15) Execute the Plan and Follow-Through. Plans by themselves have little or no value unless they are executed. This is an extremely important step, where we sometimes fall short. We need to diligently "plan the work, then work the plan" as my former boss and mentor Bruce Carpenter emphasized.
16) Reflect and Derive Lessons Learned. After the resolution plan is executed and the dust settles, there is great value in taking time to reflect and identify lessons learned. Much of the value that comes from conflicts is the after-the-fact reflection and identification of lessons learned that can help us be better managers and improve the success of our teams in the future.
Author Thomas Crum once said, “The quality of our lives depends not on whether or not we have conflicts, but on how we respond to them.” Most of us don't like when conflict happens, but when it does, let's look for the hidden blessings and use it as an opportunity to make ourselves and our teams stronger for the future!
Wes Friesen is a proven leader and developer of high performing teams and has extensive experience in both the corporate and non-profit worlds. He is also an award winning university instructor and speaker, and is the President of Solomon Training and Development, which provides leadership, management and team building training. He serves as the Industry Co-Chair of the Greater Portland PCC. His book, Your Team Can Soar! has 42 valuable lessons that will inspire you, and give you practical pointers to help you — and your team — soar to new heights of performance. Your Team Can Soar! can be ordered from Xulonpress.com/bookstore or wesfriesen.com (under Book) or an online retailer. Wes can be contacted at email@example.com or at 971-806-0812.
This article originally appeared in the May/June, 2023 issue of Mailing Systems Technology.