“I Don’t Have Time for This” - 10 Mistakes to Avoid when Managing Internal Conflict.
“I don’t have time for this.” This cry of exasperation sums up the frustration when senior executives or board members find themselves drawn into conflict among their people. This includes conflict among peers, leaders vs their direct reports, or between regional or functional champions. “Don’t they realize they are on the same team?” And yet internal conflict has more potential to be toxic than squabbles with outsiders be they competitors, suppliers and even customers. Left unattended, internal conflict can become all consuming, paralyze the organization, and poison relationships. Once it spirals out of control, you will have to make time, whether you like it or not. Bad conflict prioritizes itself so to speak.
In my consulting practice I get called upon to teach, advise on, and help mediate internal conflict; hence I have learned firsthand how hard this is. Even when deploying all the tools, there is no guarantee of a good outcome.
There are plenty of excellent resources that describe “best” conflict management practices. As always, application makes all the difference, and thinking about what mistake to stay clear of can be a good starting point. What follows is my top ten “don’t do” list.
1. Don’t assume people are rational
Any conflict management intervention starts with listening. When I first meet them, senior leaders overwhelmingly come across as articulate, perfectly reasonable, and often charming. They know how to tell their side of the story and I rarely meet people who would come across as “off base” in a first conversation. Having laid out their position, they will inevitably explain why the person on the other side is “not rational.” Rationality, however, is very much in the eye of the beholder. What appears perfectly rational to me may be total nonsense to you. Assuming that one has a monopoly on defining what’s “rational” seldom works and more often is a recipe for disaster. People often want what they want rather than what we think is “rational.” So, it’s best to start with reality instead.
2. Don’t lack in self-awareness
Closely related to wrong assumptions about rationality is lack of self awareness. We don’t realize how people see us and how we come across. What we believe to be a principled approach strikes others as dogmatic and what we think of as confident is perceived by others as arrogant, especially when we are at opposite ends of a contentious issue. This mismatch of self and others’ perceptions gets exacerbated in a cross-cultural situation. Unless both sides keep an open mind and check their assumptions, conflict resolution attempts are easily frustrated.
3. Don’t discount the emotional side of business
We know that business is personal, but we sometimes fail to see how personal it really is. If I have learned one thing in business (and life) it is that people want to be treated with respect. This goes beyond common courtesy but includes respect for experience, skill, contribution, sacrifices made, and the list goes on. Respect is an indispensable foundation for effective conflict resolution and so is a healthy dose of humility. And be genuine. The phrase “with all due respect” often indicates that what’s coming next is anything but.
4. Don’t underrate the “work” of conflict management.
Conflict management is “work”, and it deserves to be treated as such. Of course, we have other important things to do - delight customers, devise strategies, dazzle investors, launch products, display thought leadership, and the list goes on. But good conflict management can make the difference between a poisonous or a healthy culture, between good people staying or leaving, or - in the extreme - between spending money on lawyers or on things that move the business forward. So, you must do the hard work of conflict management and enlist help early if it is needed.
5. Don’t ignore the warning signs of escalation
As a senior manager, it would be foolish to involve yourself in every spat between your people; not every fiery email requires a response, and not every passionate debate requires intervention. Some things are best left alone, will blow over, or sort themselves out. But ignoring deeper conflict once too often can equally create problems. Things can and do escalate. Investing some time early to understand what’s going on, calling a meeting with all involved to clear the air, and outlining expectations for constructive behavior may seem like an inconvenience in light of busy schedules now but may head off much larger problems in the future. It is rarely a waste of time to establish or remind people of ground rules such as showing respect, stating clearly what needs to be said, and being constructive (even when others aren’t).
6. Don’t neglect to engage in healthy conflict
Not all conflict is bad. In fact, the opposite is true. We do need opposing views, vigorous debate, and willingness to engage with conviction to really understand advantages and disadvantages, develop options and alternatives, and make plans for unintended consequences or downside mitigation. Conflict is needed. In addition, good conflict helps us build a proper conflict culture where people learn they don’t have to be afraid to speak their mind, their input is actively solicited, and others’ perspectives are taken into account when making decisions. Use healthy conflict to model good conflict behavior so you are ready for more serious disputes.
7. Don’t wait for problems to build relationships
Negotiation experts stress the importance of rapport. They encourage negotiators to look for personal commonalities, shared experiences, or common interests with counterparts to build chemistry before diving into the hard bargaining. In addition, it hugely helps if you have met or - even better - have built a working relationship with people before you find yourself at the opposite end of a disagreement. So, start by creating a “stakeholder map” of people who potentially help you or stand in the way of your agenda - in other words think about potential conflict before it happens and invest in rapport building. Showing an interest in others’ work, making an attempt to connect, and engaging with them without “wanting something” can pay big dividends later.
8. Don’t forget that life is short
A few years back I was involved in a conflict situation between an experienced board member and a strong-willed CEO. Not being a pushover by any means, the board member told me that he had no interest in spending his time in constant conflict - he certainly was capable of it, and his presence on the board did add value (which was readily acknowledged by the CEO); he just didn’t want it. And so, he resigned. I would never counsel anyone to throw in the towel hastily or dramatically (I once witnessed an executive slam his badge on the table and walk away - what better way to show that he was the wrong person in the first place). But especially as career and work becomes more a matter of choice than necessity, remembering that life is short, and you may be able to make a contribution more easily elsewhere is a key consideration. Waiting for people you don’t get along with to change, on the other hand, is just as often an exercise in futility.
9. Don't miss the opportunity to apologize when it is called for
Appropriate expression of emotion is a key conflict tool. Losing one’s temper shows a lack of self control and should be reserved for the most egregious of situations (in which case it can have some effect). It is equally ineffective to remain distant and withdrawn regardless of what is in front of us. Especially in the age of robots and artificial intelligence it is good to remind ourselves that the ability to feel and relate is what differentiates us from machines and software programs. But even with the best intentions we don’t always get it right. We sometimes lose it when we shouldn’t, or we signal we don’t care when we should. Either way, a specific and sincere apology for poor behavior can make all the difference and help get a relationship back on track.
10. Don’t defer the work of building a healthy conflict culture
Conflict is a normal and necessary part of organizational life. The question is not whether you have conflict but how you manage it. Whether conflict is “good” or bad”, the default position and guiding principle should be “constructive no matter what.” So, ask yourself these questions: Does your organization have a culture where people see the value of differing opinions? Are they able to work through issues and achieve better outcomes as a result? Do they have strong relationships that can withstand serious conflict? Are people able to accept decisions that go against them because they feel that their perspective was valued, and their expertise was respected? These are questions you should ask yourself now, and possibly take action, vs waiting for the next blow-up.
Being able to manage conflict well can be a “make or break '' issue, especially when leading a group of strong-willed people from a diversity of professional and personal backgrounds. It needs to be treated as “work” or better as a performance expectation for anyone in or aspiring to a senior leadership role. Now is a good time to start. Make time for it.
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