John Ainley: Managing workplace conflict

Conflict can be a positive for your organisation: my tops tips for managing workplace conflict

For an inherently aggressive species, it’s a strange paradox that many of us human beings shy away from disagreement or conflict. That of course is a good thing in many scenarios but in a corporate situation, difference of view is a vital ingredient when it comes to getting the best out of each other and achieving the best outcomes for an organisation.

Beware fake harmony

The problem is there often exists a fear of not wanting to upset each other which results in fake harmony within executive teams. The reality is that in trusting environments, the expression of a difference in opinion is hugely valuable. It creates the opportunity to have the right conversations which play an important role in creating better solutions. Unfortunately, these challenging conversations don’t take place often enough in organisations because of our fear that we might upset others.

Marvin Bower, Head of McKinsey in the 1950s and 60s put it well: “You can’t be an effective leader in business unless you encourage those around you to speak their minds. If we have an obligation to dissent, it means we get the best insights and the best outcomes.”

Trust in each other

At its heart, the ability to have challenging conversations depends on having high levels of trust and developing strong relationships with each other. Conflict often arises because of the related drama of a situation where we look to apportion blame and because we often rely on pre-conceived opinions of how things are always done, which closes our minds to new ways of doing things.

The transformational leaders move quickly through those stages and focus on choice – what is really going on and who we want to be – and what and where the opportunity really is.

How then to improve an executive team’s ability to have challenging conversations and to bring the best of their insight together for the benefit of the company?

Here are my top tips for managing conflict effectively and positively:

  1. Take another perspective
    Empathy is key – imagine what the other person is thinking and feeling and ask open ended questions (setting aside your assumptions). Let the person know when you don’t understand and ask for examples to help clarify the issues.
  2. Create solutions
    Make it your priority to create new ideas and together, come up with possible solutions without evaluating or editing them. Most importantly, be willing to compromise.
  3. Express your emotions
    Talk honestly and directly to the other person. Explain how you feel and why. Try not to let your own ‘hot’ buttons interfere with the process.
  4. Make the first move towards reconciliation
    Express your sincere desire to understand, and admit responsibility for your contribution to the conflict and ask what you can do to make amends.
  5. Take time to reflect
    Note your initial reaction to a conflict and consider why you responded the way you did. Carefully review alternative actions and try to give others time for reflective thinking as well.
  6. Stay flexible and adapt
    Look forward, not back. Communicate your optimism that things will work out. If opportunities to reconcile or resolve the conflict arise, take advantage of them but remain professional in your attitude, words and behaviour.

Conflict can challenge the status quo

We all experience sedimented beliefs – our way of doing things that builds up over time, and are often blinded by our own experiences. The value of having different opinions voiced challenges those inherent weaknesses. Managed in an atmosphere of mutual trust and understanding, conflict might just be the most valuable weapon in the corporate armoury.