Managing Conflict


Part of managing decisions well is learning how to manage conflicts effectively. There are two types of conflict. One reflects differences in priorities, approaches, and ways of seeing things. This kind of conflict is natural, since it simply reflects different roles and different styles. Helping people figure out how to navigate these kinds of conflicts will build trust. It will also ensure the best decisions get made, through the natural give and take that reflects different people’s views.

The second type of conflict stems from breaches of trust. It’s reflected in jealousy, resentment, and a refusal to work with other people. It is also natural. But it sucks up people’s time and distracts them from getting things done.

To build high levels of trust, you need to establish clear ground rules for dealing with both types of conflict. Here’s what I tell people: “Conflict over points of view is expected. Until the decision is made, I expect there to be disagreements among you. You need to talk to each other directly and understand each other’s point of view. It’s important that you talk about your underlying assumptions and find out what data you agree on, and where you disagree. Above all, don’t ask someone else to referee your conflict. Learn to work it out yourselves. Only ask for a referee after you’ve exhausted all efforts to figure this out on your own.”

I wind up by saying: “Once the decision is made, then the time for debate is over. We will all stand united behind the decision.”

For dealing with the second type of conflict, I set this ground rule: “You will experience disagreements of a personal nature. It is inevitable. You may find that you simply do not like another person, or you may find that you resent things they’ve done in the past. Although these types of conflicts will occur, you cannot let them affect your performance. If they do affect your work, you need to take responsibility for figuring out a way to stop that from happening. If you let it continue to affect your work, then this is not the organization for you.”

Real trust only comes after people have been through a few battles together. It’s the leader’s job to make sure ground rules are in place. When the rules of engagement are clear, fair, and consistently applied, then the battles can be fun, rather than debilitating.

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