Conflict Management

Nobody enjoys conflict. At the same time, management experts consistently describe the conflict as a healthy-even crucial-business process. Professionals learn not to avoid conflict, but instead to appreciate and benefit from the diversity of thoughts, talents, and experience that can lead to conflict. In the process, they also minimize the discomfort and danger that most people associate with conflict. Eventually, they learn to enjoy the sensitive exploration of others perspectives, assumptions, and values. Managed conflict becomes the path to greater understanding.

Conflict seems to come out of nowhere. Most people would love to resolve a misunderstanding before it creates a real problem, but often professionals find themselves facing an angry colleague with no idea how the situation developed. The first step in productively managing conflict involves learning to see them coming.

Many think of conflict as the negative emotions surrounding an issue, but a better definition sees conflict as an interaction of interdependent people who perceive some incompatibility in their goals, aims or values, and who see the other party as potentially interfering with achieving these goals, aims or values (Folger, Poole, & Stutman, 2001; Frost & Wilmot, 1978; Putnam & Poole, 1987). That is, there would be nothing to fight about if people didn't feel they were somehow in each other's way.

Each situation is unique, but people get in each other's way in three basic areas (Nicotera, 1997):

Substantive goal conflicts have to do with the work task itself. With all the emphasis on reducing misunderstanding with communication, it's important to realize that some conflicts come about because we understand each other perfectly: we want different things. More importantly, we want different things that can't be obtained simultaneously. The simple fact that business organizations are comprised of multiple functional areas virtually guarantees that conflicts will arise.

Conflicting Responsibilities

The responsibilities of various departments and divisions of a company are likely to be different, and can even be oppositional at the level of individual or group tasks. Even when everyone's individual goals are aligned with a common organizational goal, the functional structure of a business organization insures conflict. A production supervisor and a marketing representative both seek corporate profitability, for example, but the conflict between controlling costs and pleasing new clients drives innovative product designs. The complexity of most businesses also positions individuals within multiple groups, sometimes crossing department lines or organizational boundaries, which can also have conflicting goals or interests (Nicotera, 1997). One individual might have responsibilities to two departments that have different, inevitably putting her in the middle of conflicting priorities or work schedules.

Scarce Resources

In any business organization, resources are limited, and some issues arise when there is not enough time, money, or material to meet everyone's needs, or when meeting one person's need causes harm of some kind to another business unit. The typical business hierarchy expects managers for each unit to set priorities, allocating resources to meet goals, but budgets and status reports never guarantee stress-free success. When expected sales don't occur, materials prices rise, or tasks take longer to complete than expected, someone's resources will be less than anticipated. Eventually, someone will make a decision to reallocate the money or time, re-prioritize the project parameters, or abandon unreachable goals. In the meantime, someone is trying to accomplish a task without the expected resources, and probably unhappy.
Process conflicts occur when participants disagree about how to go about performing a task. In any large organization, diversity in cultural backgrounds and personality types inevitably leads to disagreement about how things ought to be done. Exploring those differences can lead to more effective work processes, although that takes clear communication and a bit of patience.
Emotional conflicts stem from personal responses to situations, which might be goal or process related-or not. When faced with a tight timeline or a missing piece of data, some people become angry, others become quietly stressed, and a few gain energy and focus. Individuals also respond differently to events outside the organization, including major news events, family situations, and personal health issues. A professional business need not (and probably should not) become a mental health expert, but an understanding of some basic psychology provides perspective.

Relationship Goals

Individuals enter any interaction with an expectation of the relationship, and misunderstandings of each other's intentions or incompatible goals for the relationship can create conflicts. A new employee might anticipate the senior colleague at the next desk to be a mentor, a work friend, or a mere acquaintance. Meanwhile, the senior worker could anticipate the new young colleague to be a potential rival, a trusted confidant, or a source of fresh ideas. As these two people proceed through the stages of developing their relationship, they might easily give each other confusing signals, respond inappropriately to each other's communication, or even offend each other deeply-simply because they were anticipating different outcomes.

Identity and Status

Most people are strongly affected by threats to their self-esteem and positive identity. Nobody likes to look foolish, immature, weak, or incompetent, and situations that create a negative image can easily give rise to emotional conflict. When individuals actually do something foolish or incompetent, others can justify their negative reactions, but even the guilty suffer when self-esteem, identity, and status are threatened. Some cultures (including some business organization cultures) are careful to provide "face-saving" options, allowing people a chance to hide their shame, at least publically. Necessary corrections become more private, and thus less likely to create emotional conflict. In other organizations, individuals take a coaching role, offering emotional support as they correct others' behavior.

Change and Surprise

Threats to goals or changes in task processes can create conflicts, as noted above, but virtually any detour on a person's path is likely to evoke an emotional response. Simply changing a normal office routine can lead to anxiety, frustration, or anger. Sometimes change occurs in obvious ways, as when a company is acquired by another or a major client requests new procedures. Other times, changes occur below the radar, and emotional reactions can kick in before people even realize exactly what is wrong. One insurance claims adjustor tells a story of annual conflict: adjustors handled settlements on their own, but in the last two months of every year, when corporate reserves edged close to their budgeted limits, the manager started micromanaging files. Only after a couple of years could new adjusters perceive the pattern and stop reacting (badly) to the unexpected change in their manager's behavior. Change is always disruptive at some level, and whether intended or not, stirs up emotional reactions.
Regardless of its source, the conflict arises when people find themselves at odds. In each case, difference offers advantage: new methods can be explored, behavior can be corrected, and groups can allocated work more effectively. Too often, people respond with communication that turns productive difference into conflict (Collins, 2005), but communication is also the tool for turning a situation with significant potential for harm into an opportunity for organizational development. That advantage depends on timely, effective communication about the differences and a productive conversation that resolves the situation with an optimal outcome.

Effective conflict management starts with beginning the conversation before misunderstandings and emotional responses have already created discomfort. Sometimes, people recognize the need to communicate but fail to act because they don't know how to avoid the discomfort, but professionals can learn some key skills:

Recognize the Issue

Simply recognizing that difference, surprise, and change can lead to emotional responses goes a long way in learning to prevent conflict. The professional who anticipates that others might misunderstand her motives can watch for opportunities to build understanding from the start. A second skill involves recognizing potential areas of concern, possibly even before anyone has had a chance to respond.

Every time an anticipated behavior or event doesn't occur, someone faces a potential conflict. Any time an unexpected event or behavior occurs, someone faces a potential conflict. A difference between someone's expectation and an actual event might signal a lack of resources, a difference in cultural assumptions, a personality preference, or a multitude of other differences.

Noting the difference, the discrepancy, the gap between the expectation and the actual event, becomes the first step in a constructive conversation. The discussion might yield a marvelous insight into organizational goals or effectiveness, or it might lead to laughter about one another's idiosyncrasies. Most often, it will lead to a clarification of expectations or explanations for actions.

Take Time to Communicate

The ensuing conversation doesn't always take a long time, but it might. Sometimes people avoid addressing their differences because they simply don't want to invest the time and energy in a long, potentially challenging conversation. It does take some personal awareness to explain your own reactions to a situation. It can take emotional intelligence to understand another person's point of view. It might even take solid time management skills to fit the conversation into a busy schedule. (For more on these important professional skills, select Professional Attitude from the menu on the right.)

Take Responsibility for Communicating

Sometimes, professionals will defer the conversation to a better time, but it is never businesslike to ignore an issue, simply hoping it will go away. It won't. Take steps to engage in conversation and manage the conflict before it loses its productive value.

Two factors might seem to offer an excuse. Some companies assign a formal "issue coordinator" to coordinate problem solving efforts (Gulbranson, 1998), which insures a hearing for everyone's concerns, but can allow others to avoid engaging in the conversations. Others will encourage or even require that complaints or grievances be taken to specific individuals, such as a supervisor or union steward. These can be important policies with many benefits, but sometimes workers then claim they "can't" or "shouldn't" engage in any kind of problem-solving communication with their co-workers.

Professionals will involve organizational experts when appropriate, but they will also take responsibility for communicating about their goals, their work procedures, and their own emotional reactions when organizational effectiveness is at stake. The responsible communicator might request help to create a clearer message or begin a difficult conversation, but she doesn't avoid her professional obligations.

Most workplace conflict stems from misunderstanding, so communication that clarifies understanding in the first place become a key skill of conflict management. Professional communication should always aim to be clear and concise, of course, but a few key issues play a big role in conflict.

Pick an Effective Method

Selecting the most effective channel of communication is, of course, an aim of quality communication processes, but sometimes, participants don't realize they haven't made a good choice until misunderstandings have occurred and created conflict. When your message doesn't seem to have received the result you expected, one of the first things to ask yourself (or your conversation partner) is whether the message has somehow been garbled in transmission.

  • Information. Conflicts can erupt when people don't get all the information they need. Email seems quick, but if missing information leads to a frustrating series of clarifying emails, a phone call might have been the better choice.

  • Emotion. People understand emotions from others' faces, but written communication, especially short, hurried emails or overly formal letters, can be easily misinterpreted.

  • Apologies. What you say doesn't matter as much as the act of saying it, and choosing an impersonal communication method like email, text, or voicemail, can make things worse.

  • Appreciation. A hand-written thank you note is most impressive, and any thanks that seem insincere-a form letter instead of a phone call, for instance-can lead to hurt feelings.

  • Attention. Misunderstandings begin when attention wanders from the communication. Texting during meetings, interrupting busy people with information or requests, phoning from a noisy location-any communication when everyone involved can't focus-can lead to trouble.

Communicate Expectations

In the vast majority of situations, an issue-a gap between what two people expected-exists because those involved simply didn't understand the expectations the same way. The co-worker meant a different Thursday. The intern never learned the unwritten rule about how to show initiative. John just isn't that smiley until he's had two cups of coffee. Once the conversation starts, clarification prevents the conflict from becoming distressful, and-just as all the management gurus insist-the situation has allowed people to learn things that make the organization more effective.

Once the issue is recognized, the easiest and most useful communication involves a clarification of what was expected and what actually happened. Never begin with accusations, negative consequences, or blame. Those reactions to an issue guarantee conflict. Instead, clearly and completely describe just the behaviors involved.

  • Responsibilities. Job duties must include specific times, quantities, actions, or standards. Vague descriptions like "You were supposed to provide a high-quality spreadsheet" easily cause misunderstandings about how to define or determine quality, for example. Instead, be clear and complete: "You were expected to provide a spreadsheet with correctly working functions in all cells that could be easily sorted on any of the columns."

  • Roles. Unstated expectations about functional or positional roles should be clarified in terms of specific behaviors. A vague descriptor like "a highly professional" intern, for example, must be clarified with details: "A professional intern will stop by my desk daily to see whether there are any new duties or projects and let me know whenever a job is completed."

  • Preferences. Until they learn differently, people expect others to be like themselves. Good advice like "do unto others as you'd like others to do unto you" can go badly wrong, however, in work groups with diverse backgrounds, jobs, and personalities. Prevent misunderstandings by asking others' preferences and communicating your own: "I'm kind of a people person, and I really like to spend a couple of minutes chatting with each before we get rolling on the day's tasks."

Watch Feedback Signals

Communication always involves a feedback loop, even if it is unspoken, subtle, or incomplete. A good communicator checks for misunderstanding often and repairs the message so that the communication doesn't break down. This means paying attention to responses, asking for confirmation, and listening carefully for clues of misunderstanding. (For more on active listening skills, hover over Communication and Presentation Skills at the right.)

Honesty and Niceness

People are taught from an early age, "if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all," but the advice creates problems within a business organization. Clear communication must include the bad news.

  • Be clear that the news is bad. People will misinterpret information in the most favorable way they possibly can. Don't hint, hide, or allow for misinterpretation. The result might sound blunt, but it will be clear.

  • Be patient. People take longer to process negative statements than positive. Make sure the bad news sinks in before moving on.

  • Don't hide the bad news. Don't try to sneak bad news into a message by "sandwiching" it between unrelated, confusing, or irrelevant "nice" things that distract the listener from the important information.

  • Admit reasons and reasoning. Clear communication includes the facts, reasons, and explanations for a negative situation. It can be tempting to avoid the truth when it is embarrassing or costly, but solutions depend on complete information.

  • Offer choices. You might have an answer-but this is not the time to ram it someone's throat. Nice people do give bad news, but they ask others to help choose a workable repair, a better option, or an alternative action.

The fear of conflict can sometimes create conflict. Someone sees a colleague make a mistake, but worries that he will be unhappy or angry if corrected. So, the issue is ignored, leading to even more problems and real conflict. Learning a few key skills can reduce the fear of the difficult communication, making everyone more likely to resolve their issues before conflict develops.

Recognize Emotional Triggers

Everyone's biggest fear involves negative emotions, so a key skill involves recognizing how they arise in order to avoid triggering them.

  • Negative news. By definition, an issue involves some gap between expectations and events, which is necessarily bad news. People receive bad news every day, which can be disappointing, worrisome, or annoying, but only turns to anger when a person interprets the cause as a threat or an unfair accusation. When bringing up an issue, be careful not to blame the person for it or threaten consequences.

  • Stress. People can suffer from stress without even realizing that their mood, thinking patterns and work productivity are being undermined. Working long hours, minor medical conditions, or family concerns might cause emotional reactions to situations that would otherwise be simple problems to solve. When bringing up an issue, be supportive and helpful about resolving it.

  • Fear. An emotional reaction to danger is normal and healthy. Uncomfortable, hot sensations are the body's way of getting the mind to pay attention to a potential threat. Once the mind is engaged in the problem solving, the physiological symptoms will subside. When bringing up an issue, allow others a moment to focus and regroup from their initial response.

  • Frustration. The inability to control one's own environment or meet personal goals can result in anger, sadness, or other negative emotions. Realize that any problem you find is probably an issue for others as well. When bringing up an issue, focus on the elements of the problem you share.

Calm the Emotions

Because the body's symptoms must be cleared before the mind can engage, a second key skill involves methods to calm those symptoms quickly.

  • Deep breathing. The advice to "take a deep breath" is common because it works. The return of oxygen to the brain signals the rest of the body to relax. Don't advise others to take a deep breath in a patronizing way; it is better to simply model the behavior and wait a moment for others to catch up.

  • Make a list. Once cognitive functions begin to take over, the emotions will subside. The task of listing-even listing the bad things that are creating fear or stress-can speed the shift from emotional response to problem-solving.

Use a Positive Tone

Any professional knows that shouting or crying would be a bad way to start, but there are also signals that create a positive, problem-solving tone.

  • Low pitch. Using the lowest tones in your vocal register signals that you are calm, reassuring others that they need not be fearful. Individuals with naturally high-pitched voices can benefit from exercises to develop a lower range.

  • Slow rate. Speaking slowly similarly signals calmness, as do pauses in the conversation. Even an immediate emergency will be handled more sensibly when conversation is not frantic.

  • Smile. A full-blown grin might be inappropriate, but learn how to erase your own expressions of fear and anger. Usually, the smiling muscles are involved.

  • Language. Avoid words that blame or threaten, of course, but look also for words that indicate good will and positive intentions. "You were late to the meeting" could be a true statement, but, "You didn't arrive on time," emphasizes the intention to be there.

  • Posture. Give all the nonverbal signals of calm, "businesslike" conversation with normal eye-contact, relaxed gestures, and an open body position (Zivin, 1982).

Focus on Commonalities

Conflict arises when there is a perception of incompatible goals or interests, so uncovering the sources of dissimilar perceptions can solve a problem before it escalates to conflict. Similarly, when two people or departments complete for scarce resources, they still share fundamental organizational or relationship goals. Even when individuals are distressed by each other's personal responses or preferences, they can usually agree on some aspects of the situation (Lulofs & Cahn, 2000).

  • Perceptions. Have a conversation about perceptions, assumptions, points of view, goals, and interpretations before you try to solve the problem. While making steps toward a solution, back track often to clarify differing points of view. As you work through those differences, you'll discover spots of agreement on which to build.

  • Relationships. Although everyone in the organization shares some common goals, the day-to-day relationships of real people can be more complicated. People might be willing to cooperate with specific co-workers. Long-term relationships might be more meaningful than short-term. Power might matter more than prestige or respect more than power.

  • Personality. Even though people are all different, most share some personality traits with others. Detail people and problem solvers, for example, share a fundamental orientation toward completing tasks. Once they can see their differences as two paths toward the same goal, problem solving can begin.

Focus on the Relationship

Every business situation involves individuals who are engaged in long-term relationships. One issue cannot be allowed to destroy an important vendor relationship, jeopardize a company's reputation, or poison colleague relationships. Effective communication begins with the premise that resolving the issue is good for the relationship.

  • Appreciate the humor. You need not be a comedian to appreciate the humor of the human condition, and humor in communication exchanges can be an incredible relationship builder.

  • Listen. Spend a significant part of the conversation listening carefully. Use active skills to discover the values, presumptions, and emotional connections the other person is dealing with.

  • Think long term. Take steps to solve the problem, but focus your energy on building the relationship. You might sacrifice your own preferences or take a little longer to meet your goals in order to help your partner achieve hers.

Solve the Problem

Simply understanding each other's differences does not resolve the issue. The conversation must turn quickly and authentically toward solving the problem. (For more on problem solving steps, hover over Writing and Reasoning Skills at the right and select Problem Solving.)

  • Speak to the right person. Don't try to take up an issue with person who has no authority to change the situation. Talking to others is just "bitching" about a problem, not a step toward solving it.

  • Seek cooperation, not agreement. Problem solving is not persuasion, and the goal is not to induce another person to change goals, give up resources, or act in a different way. Instead, locate an alternative that is acceptable to both-good enough that they can both move toward their goals.

  • Stick to the facts. Don't offer judgments of another person's attitude or choices. Focus on the facts of the situation-the agreed upon procedures and the actual outcome.
No matter how hard you try to prevent conflict, other people will bring it to you. Maybe things got out of hand in a different department. Many your colleague lacks emotional intelligence. Maybe you didn't fully understand someone's goals. The final step of conflict management is managing your own response to criticism, confrontation, or conflict.

Whether or not the criticism is justified, and whether or not the person delivering it does a good job, your response should focus on the issue to be resolved, not on your own defensive reaction.

Obvious Don'ts Of course, you would never respond with return criticism or with an emotional outburst. A little less obvious defensive responses include excuses or denials. Even a claim that you couldn't have possibly had anything to do with the situation takes the focus away from the problem at hand. If your colleague thinks there is an issue, take the situation seriously.

Listen carefully, without interrupting. Instead use active listening skills of questioning, paraphrasing, and feedback. That sends the message that you are willing to continue the communication. Your goal is to determine the speaker's underlying intent, even when it is buried under a few layers of anger or fear.

Acknowledge the speaker's message in some way. Look for a way to agree with something or find a place where you have some common interest. You might agree that the situation appears negative, or that certain events did take place. Don't simply agree with the criticism, especially if you intend to ignore it. Actively look for a place to begin constructive communication about the issue.

Respond with a constructive comment or question. Ask for additional information or clarification. Ask for clearer criteria for future work, or for more facts about the situation. Find an aspect of the problem that you can agree with, or at least with a perception of the problem that needs to be corrected.

Stay on the subject Criticism is unpleasant, and it can be tempting to change the subject to something else, but that simply sends a message that you don't want to address the issue. Take responsibility for the conflict management, even when you didn't start the conversation.

Most of the time, clear communication means providing the requested information in a concise, clear and useful format. Sometimes, people are not simply requesting information. They are also expressing normal human emotions, which might not even have anything to do with the business purposes of the communication.

  • Your boss requests some statistics, thinking about the big trouble she is going to be in if the report isn't to her manager in time. Instead of a simple request, she snarls at you.

  • Your co-worker, recently broken up with his girlfriend, forgets to give you all the details about the afternoon's meeting, forcing you to ask several questions to clarify his instructions.

  • A customer calls, angry and confused about a product, and starts the conversation by yelling, as though you had something to do with the problem.

Sometimes you should ignore the emotions and focus on the business task. Other times, you'll want to draw out the hidden message and learn more about your colleague's situation. Occasionally, the emotional message is more important than the business topic, but usually you can't reduce your boss's stress, help your co-worker with his relationship issues, or fix the customer's product. Once you understand the emotional component of the message, however, you are better able to communicate effectively.

Whether because of mental health issues, medical conditions, or just plain nastiness, some individuals are consistently difficult.

Difficult Coworkers

Working with such a person can be frustrating, but everyone in the organization will benefit when co-workers work together to minimize the negative impact. These situations call for particular attention to the context and to the long-term relationship.

  • Be realistic. Don't expect a difficult person to improve or to respond to strategic attempts to influence his or her behavior. If there were not underlying issues, "normal" communication would already have been effective. Try to work within the parameters of what the person is able to handle in terms of relationships, job assignments, or working conditions.

  • Be kind. Even difficult people are made unhappy by their own difficulties, and many will appreciate the effort others make to work with them productively. Even those who are oblivious to your efforts will be easier to get along with if they are not subjected to ridicule, anger, or gossip.

Difficult Customers

Building solid relationships can be more difficult with customers, since most interactions are with individuals you've never met before.

  • Assume the best. Assume the complaint has some merit, at least in the customer's mind, and a normally nice person has become upset by the situation. With this perspective, it will be easier to communicate with a friendly tone.

  • Thank the customer. Most unhappy customers don't bother to complain, so the situation offers your company some valuable information. If nothing else, you can thank the customer for taking the time to initiate communication.

  • Stay conversational. Even if you can't solve the problem yourself, as the "first contact" you become the customer's advocate with the company. Show sympathy, if not empathy, and explain the company's actions or position in human terms, not bureaucratic legalese.

  • Show respect. Communication with a stranger relies almost entirely on language cues. With no knowledge of each other's personality or background, you must be careful to follow all the social rules of polite behavior. Respond promptly. Say please and thank you. Use titles rather than first names. Pay attention to the question, and give a full response.

Difficult Supervisors

Power differences create special problems, and supervisor sometimes expect (and occasionally deserve) to be obeyed without question.

  • Bosses have emotions too. We all desire an "ideal" boss who is never angry and never overwhelmed, but that is simply an unrealistic expectation. Patience, kindness, and an assumption of good will can help avoid conflicts with supervisors, just as they do for others.

  • Bosses have hidden information. Assume that the supervisor has more information about a topic than you do, and that divulging that information might not be an option. It's fair to ask for the reasons and reasoning, but sometimes professionals gracefully work in the dark.

  • The Boss role is not the boss. Some people have difficulty shifting roles, and some bosses have trouble recognizing contexts or appropriate behavior. As you learn to recognize the organizational signals, you'll be able to play the roles-and even cue your clueless boss.

  • You might be a boss someday. Even the best boss has a goal conflict with your success; your promotion would leave a hole to be filled. Difficult bosses might have a well-founded fear that you are trying to take over. Either way, avoid boasting, criticism of others, visions of "what I would do around here," or other immodest messages that suggest you really are after someone else's job.

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