Conflict is a fact of life, in business or otherwise. Yet, managed incorrectly, conflict can have devastating effects: strained relationships, lost productivity, and low morale. Even at C-suite levels, executives try to avoid unpleasant conversations, with deleterious results. Rather than creating more conflict, learning to deal with conflict in a constructive manner can lead to better business outcomes.
Unsurprisingly, conflict is an oft-discussed topic in business articles, books, and workshops. But much of the content is about conflict styles, or how to have difficult conversations. It is better to start with the source of the conflict, facile though that may seem.
Sources and Types of Conflict
At its most basic, conflict is “an incompatibility between two or more opinions, principles, or interests.” That incompatibility can originate from poor communication and interpersonal skills, bias, differing values and opinions, and limits on resources, both physical and psychological.
When individuals apply those shortcomings and biases in everyday life and in their work, those sources can manifest in various types of conflict. According to hbr.org, there are four main types of conflict:
Relationship conflict tends to derive from the other conflict types when unresolved. Task conflict occurs when there is disagreement over “what” is to be done, such as the goal for a project. Process conflict arises from dispute over the “how” things are to be done. Status conflict involves disagreement over “who” is in charge, and is likely the most delicate—and political—of the types of conflict.
Managing Conflict: Options
People bring their biases and beliefs to the workplace, and inevitably conflict arises, perhaps over an important project. Or there could be dissension over a management style. Now is not the time to gloss over the rumblings. In fact, too little conflict can lead to poor results. If conflict is inherent as a part of human psychology, and there is no way to express it openly, humans will take the “passive-aggressive” route in the form of gossip, procrastination, and a negative attitude. There are costs for this method of not dealing with conflict, including slow decision making, poor risk mitigation, and slow execution.
Going back to Harvard Business Review, you have four options:
- Do nothing. While this option may seem counterintuitive to everything I have said thus far, we experience conflicts all day long and we have to pick our battles. We must prioritize and decide which conflicts will have a greater impact if not dealt with.
- Address it indirectly. This is the “passive-aggressive” route, but as some have noted, different cultures may not take kindly to more overt methods of conflict resolution. Here is where identifying the source of your conflict is key.
- Address it directly with the individual through discussion.
- End the interaction. Quit the job, end the project, wrap up the meeting. This is a last-ditch solution, and not always a viable option.
In the US, addressing conflicts directly is probably the most common. When stakes are high and emotions are tense, it is essential to proceed in a rational way. As an executive or manager, helping employees resolve conflict will be a regular part of the day-to-day work. It is essential to foster an environment where potential conflicts can be addressed in the open. Ask how someone could criticize this method or idea. Or ask, what has not been discussed?
When conflicts do arise, it is best to allow employees to resolve it themselves. Addressing the sources and types of conflict, as well as options for managing conflict, gives professionals the tools they need to resolve issues independently. Of course, there will always be circumstances when the manager needs to step in. In any conflict, there is the potential for a “loser.” However, if the environment for healthy debate exists, options are given for resolution, and the process is fair, there is a higher likelihood that people will come away from the situation with a more positive impression.