How to deal effectively with conflict Understanding the psychology behind conflict will help you manage such situations to the benefit of your organisation.
Adam and Eve, humanity has struggled to deal with conflict. We typically either try to avoid it at all costs or tackle it incompetently and let it spiral out of control. Research shows that conflict is costing us dearly. A recent study, which polled 5 000 employees in Europe and the Americas and 660 HR practitioners in the UK, found that the average employee spends 2.1 hours a week dealing with conflict. In the UK alone, “workplace disagreement that disrupts the flow of work” translates to 370m working days lost every year.
So if we cannot avoid conflict, how can we become more competent at dealing with conflict and save our organisations millions?
Distinguish between healthy and unhealthy conflict
Conflict is often thought of as something that is negative per se – something to be avoided like an intrusive virus. But is it?
It is through exploring conflicting views of reality, through challenging set opinions and engaging in robust debate that civilisations progress, societies grow, innovation flourishes and organisations prosper. Yet, conflict that spins out of control has cost civilisation dearly, in lives and money.
When building conflict-competent relationships and teams, to use a term coined by Craig Runde and Tim Flanagan, authors of Becoming a Conflict Competent Leader, one should distinguish between task conflict (constructive) and personal conflict (destructive).
Task conflict is essentially when we disagree about something outside ourselves. This is absolutely needed and is associated with a process of healthy, robust debate that allows the exploring of options, such as a strategy, a process, a way of doing something.
Allowing ourselves to be challenged by others’ opinions, views and approaches is an essential element of creativity and innovation, and counters the brain’s natural drive towards pattern making (where we figure it out, then stop consciously thinking about it and shift it to the habit or limbic brain).
Conflict goes wrong when it shifts from being task-focused to being person-focused. Evidence of this is when we start blaming others and attributing undesirable characteristics to the person with whom we are having the task conflict. “You don’t listen”, “You always …”, “Can’t you understand/think…” are often indications that we have shifted towards unhealthy personal conflict, and this is where things often get counterproductive and
Know your hardwired conflict approach
Irrespective of the level of leadership development work I do (personal, team, strategic etc.), my experience has been that a deep level of understanding of the blueprint of our own personality DNA, more commonly called self-awareness, is one of the critical keys to progress and success. An important component of such self-awareness is understanding our personality’s hardwired response in conflict.
A great tool that helps individuals and teams to build self-awareness in conflict was developed by the psychologist Elias H. Porter. Porter found that conflict typically has three phases.
In Phase 1 conflict still has the potential to be productive and positive as we remain able to entertain the issue on which we disagree, our own interest and the interest of the other. This is the territory of robust and constructive debate.
However, in Phase 2 we stop considering the interest and views of the other party and we lose some objectivity; and in Phase 3 we drop the issue under contention and argue only for our own interest or point of view – in this phase the conflict is likely to get out of control and risks becoming personal.
A critical element of building conflict competence is to learn to catch conflict before it goes beyond Phase 1. To achieve this, we need to understand our own approach to the first phase of conflict, and identify and respect others’ first phases of conflict.
Every individual deals with these three phases in a predictable manner by following one of three approaches in different sequences. Porter outlines these approaches as follows (see opposite table): considering ways of accommodating the other (blue); debating or engaging more forcefully (red); reflecting and gathering more information (green). The sequence with which we go through these strategies differs from person to person. For example, in the
Danie Eksteen Faculty member at USB Executive Development