We’ve Got Conflict and It Needs to Stop! Conflict Management Skills
When a leader comes to me and says, “We’ve got conflict and it needs to stop,” there are few things I’m listening for.
My main question is whether the problem concerns feelings about the fact that conflict exists at all, or is it more about how people are handling the conflict? To get to this answer, I want to know:
- How do you define “conflict?”
- What happens when there is conflict?
- How do people react?
- Why do you think it needs to stop?
If you are dealing with conflict in your team, especially if you are frustrated, try to step back and take a look at the situation through an objective lens.
One tool people find that’s practical and insightful is the Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument, or TKI. This assessment helps individuals and teams understand 5 different styles of conflict along 2 dimensions: assertiveness and cooperativeness. Individuals complete an assessment that gives them information about their own preferred style and typical behavior when faced with conflict. The 5 styles are: avoiding, accommodating, compromising, competing and collaborating. Charting an entire team’s styles give you a great picture of the team’s overall preferences – and where there are similarities and differences among the team members.
Reducing conflict, or improving how it’s handled, involves changes – in behavior, perspectives, interpretations, etc.
Consider these three steps when trying to influence change:
1: Practicing self-awareness
2: Meeting people where THEY are
3: Implementing great leadership strategies
The third step is what we usually focus on. It feels easier just to identify what action someone needs to take. This is especially prominent in our fast-paced, results-oriented society. What we miss with focusing on action first is what’s going on behind the scenes. And before we focus on others, if we really want to make sustainable change, we need to figure out how our own perceptions and actions are impacting the situation.
STEP 1: PRACTICE SELF-AWARENESS
When we want people or situations to change, it’s as much about us as it is about them. We all have different perceptions of and tolerances for conflict. One person’s description of intense conflict may not even register as conflict for another team member. Consider your upbringing. I have a friend from a passionate, Italian family on the East Coast. His communication style is enthusiastic, loud – and passionate. Opinions are voiced loudly with big gestures, big noise, and big smiles. Compare that approach to communication to someone who is more reserved and subtle. Some folks prefer a softer and less direct communication style - especially when there is any disagreement. If you asked these two types of people to define conflict, you’d get very different answers.
Consider your own behavior, preferences and style when it comes to conflict: When there is a conflict situation, meaning individuals are not in alignment or agreement, how do you typically respond?
- Do you lean more towards being less assertive and avoid the issue or situation? This is the avoiding style.
- Are you less assertive about your own needs yet focused on cooperating with others? This is the accommodating style.
- Do you want to “win” when there is conflict? The competing style is most assertive, yet not as focused on cooperating with others.
- Are you somewhere in the middle? Somewhat assertive, somewhat reserved, somewhat focused on cooperating with others? That’s what TKI calls “compromising.”
- The final box is the “collaborating” style of conflict. This is assertive AND focused on cooperation.
Be honest with yourself. How do you typically approach conflict? How does your typical response impact the situation, other people, the team, and your own perception of the situation? In the scenario I mentioned up front, the leader’s typical conflict style sheds light on what is going on – and what needs to happen.
STEP TWO: MEET PEOPLE WHERE THEY ARE
Once you’ve identified your own perceptions and behaviors around conflict, it’s time to think about others. For the action-oriented folks out there, this is where you need to embrace reality and manage your own impatience. Every person is an individual. If you want to influence behavior, you cannot just tell people to act differently. Well, you CAN do that, but it will not be successful in the long run. On the flip side, if you have a more reserved approach, you may need to push yourself out of your comfort zone if your team is more action-oriented. Great leaders, influencers and communicators are skilled at understanding their audience. Great leaders are able to reach out to others and walk alongside them while encouraging them to move forward.
For example, think about successful personal trainers. A fitness trainer can TELL a person who wants to be a better athlete, be more fit, or lose weight exactly what they need to do. That's often not the true problem, though. The opportunity is motivation and changing paradigms and behaviors. Great personal trainers know that working alongside a client is motivating and more likely to get traction. Bench-pressing 250 lbs. consistently while a client is struggling with 50 lbs. isn’t going to motivate every client. Some need that trainer to do the 50 lbs. press alongside them to see how they do it, not get overwhelmed, gain confidence, etc. (To keep this conversation simple, I’ll recognize we could have a full-on debate about motivation. There’s a time and place for “in your face” motivation versus softer, supportive motivation. The key is “know your audience.” )
Meeting people where they are when it comes to conflict means doing a quick mental assessment to identify where individuals are, such as thinking about where they are on that same TKI chart you used for yourself. Once you’ve done that, you’ll have a better idea of what’s really going on – and where the opportunities lie.
STEP THREE: IMPLEMENT GREAT LEADERSHIP STRATEGIES
Once you have a better idea of the landscape – both others’ and your own natural approach towards conflict, you are in a better position to improve conflict in your team. This doesn’t mean high performance is easy and fast. Just being more aware of the similarities and differences among team members is a huge step – as long as you try to understand and adapt to others’ needs and preferences.
It’s important to recognize that each conflict style has its place. The cooperative and collaborative approaches are, in general, the healthiest place to operate for teams and organizations. Not all teams have the foundations in place to operate "in that space" and not everyone has the skills or desire to do so. Every team is a combination of individuals, so individual preferences and skills need to be taken into account. And, there are some situations in which avoiding the conflict altogether is the healthiest approach for everyone. It’s not black and white.
The key to effectively handling conflict is navigation – how you and your team work through conflict.
A few places to start:
If your team has a solid base of trust already, introduce the concepts of the TKI assessment. Providing an overview of the model and asking open-ended questions can start some great dialogue. Ask things like:
- How does this apply to our team?
- Where do you see yourself?
- What’s one thing we can take away from this to improve how our te am navigates conflict?
Use the discussion as a jumping-off point for a more in-depth TKI assessment for everyone on the team. Talking through the results can be worked into existing meetings, or in a team retreat. There are lots of options! The Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team Assessment is also a great tool to take team performance to the next level.
For teams that have intense conflict and low trust, you need to do some groundwork first. Sorry, no quick fixes here. One low-cost, low-risk way to start is introducing the TKI concepts in a meeting, but not expecting discussion. I’m a huge fan of “planting a seed.” Without expecting or demanding uncomfortable conversation, you can introduce the topic and let people think about it. Most likely, you’ll find that people will start coming forward 1:1, which opens the door. If that doesn’t happen, it’s a solid indication that there are more serious issues with the team’s foundation.
In high-conflict and low-trust teams, you are almost always going to benefit most from using assessments and a facilitator to really get to the root of what needs to be uncovered so that real progress can be made. Yes, I’m a facilitator so it’s not a surprise I say that. However, I’ve also led teams, so I have first-hand experience with the benefits of having someone who isn’t part of the team helping folks figure out how to work more effectively. One solution that gets to the root of trust is the Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team assessment and team building workshops. Check out my blog on Building Team Trust to learn more about the different kinds of trust and how working on it gets to the root of performance issues.
Here’s the reality with conflict. Conflict cannot be “stopped.” We can pretend it doesn’t exist and SAY it doesn’t exist, but that doesn't make it go away. Kind of like that quote: If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make any noise? Yes, whether we acknowledge conflict or not, it's a reality of being human. How we deal with conflict - how we navigate conflict - is the key to higher performing teams and more satisfying organizations.