When handled effectively, conflict can lead to positive outcomes, such as enhanced self-awareness, better teamwork, a more open and tolerant environment, and greater personal growth.
David rubbed his forehead, trying to relieve the tension he felt building in his head. He could not believe yet another meeting with his executive team had taken a turn for the worse. For the past eight months, he and the two other primary owners, Robert and Brett, seemed to teeter constantly on the brink of battle. David is the president and CEO of Salandar Construction Company, but he rarely felt like he was leading anything.
Most of his time was spent in constant arguments about finances, strategies and processes. As the three key leaders of the organization, their executive team was supposed to provide oversight and direction for the whole firm. Unfortunately, none of them could agree on anything. Every discussion quickly turned into an argument, and they spent the majority of their meetings fighting about issues irrelevant to the work at hand. David did not know when or how their conflict initially started, but he recognized the ongoing tension was unhealthy and threatened their ability to lead the organization effectively.
David knew that, as the CEO, he bore the greatest responsibility to fix the issues of the executive team. Unfortunately, he had no idea where to start. Every time it seemed the team had put its issues behind it, someone would make a comment that would send the others into a rage, and their meeting would once again spiral into chaos. As the months wore on, David recognized he desperately needed to try something different.
David’s situation is a story all too common in today’s organizations and, in particular, throughout the construction industry. Unhealthy, unproductive conflict can create headaches for leaders at all levels of organizations. The Washington Business Journal reported, “The typical manager spends 25%-40% of his or her time dealing with workplace conflicts.”1 This means that leaders spend one to two days of every workweek managing employee conflict. Additional research by CPP Inc., exclusive publisher of the Myers-Briggs® assessment, shows that employees spend almost three hours each week dealing with work-related conflict, costing organizations more than $350 billion dollars in a single year alone.2 As these numbers suggest, conflict can be a major drain on the individuals involved as well as the overall organization. Imagine the effect on the organization’s bottom line if managers could use the time spent on dealing with interpersonal conflict on matters more important to the success of the business!
While conflict can create havoc at all levels of the organization, the ramifications become more serious the higher up the conflict goes. Research shows that “one in eight employees (12%) say that disagreements among their senior team are frequent or continual.”3 When unhealthy, unproductive conflict occurs at the top of an organization (as in David’s case), the trickle-down effects can be disastrous. Unchecked conflict produces many issues for companies. First, there is the time, energy and effort that is wasted on the conflict. Further, conflict can create toxic environments; lower morale; increase turnover, political infighting, backstabbing and dishonesty; and decrease productivity throughout the entire organization. Would you want to work for this kind of company? For most of us, the answer is an overwhelming no.
CREATE AN ENVIRONMENT OF TRUST
In a high-stress, deadline-driven industry like construction, conflict is inevitable and can occur for a number of reasons. First, each individual has his or her own communication style. For example, some people are more blunt and upfront, whereas others show more restraint and diplomacy in their communication. The ways in which we communicate can easily create conflict, especially when we speak without fully thinking through the words we use, the tone in which we speak them and how others may interpret our message. A great deal of conflict can arise from simple misunderstandings or misinterpretations of what someone is trying to say or do. Second, individuals have their own personal values, a specific way of looking at the world and their own goals, plans and dreams. When two people with dissimilar values, attitudes or objectives clash, conflict can arise due to these fundamentally different beliefs. We also see workplace tension emerge when people are experiencing high levels of stress. The realities of today’s business means we are often juggling many obligations at a time, dealing with tight deadlines, balancing a heavy workload and working long hours. When stress goes unmanaged, it can easily give rise to tension and disagreements among individuals. In short, there is no way to obliterate all conflict from our organizations, as this element is a natural byproduct of human interactions.
Even if we could remove all conflict completely from the workplace, this would not be a wise or effective course of action. Conflict in and of itself is not a negative thing. Conflict can be, and often is, quite healthy and a core element in high-functioning teams. Think about this: We all have different viewpoints, opinions, ways of thinking and ideas. Would creative problem-solving and innovation occur if everyone were to agree with each other and silent their personal opinions? Probably not. Some of the most productive, effective meetings involve a deep appreciation for conflicting ideas or opinions such that the result, made up of multiple viewpoints, is better than any individual’s singular plan or strategy. We want people to feel safe and comfortable to speak up and share their unique points of view, even when those opinions are in direct conflict with others. One way to do this is through creating an open environment of trust and mutual respect, where people are encouraged, and perhaps even rewarded, to engage in a healthy discussion of ideas.
FOCUS ON ISSUES AND GOALS
When teams have no conflict at all, they often slip into groupthink, a mentality where people would rather promote group cohesion than question ideas or voice a dissenting opinion. Unfortunately, groupthink often leads to ineffective, flawed decision-making. In order to avoid issues like groupthink so that a team can perform at its peak, some conflict is required, even if tension and disagreements make people feel uncomfortable.
However, team conflict must be healthy and productive, unlike the conflict David experienced with his senior leadership team. In David’s situation, Robert, Brett and David were unable to communicate effectively. They disagreed on everything and spent most of their time together fighting about irrelevant issues. A more helpful situation for this executive team would involve an atmosphere of trust and respect for these leaders to engage in a healthy, productive interplay of ideas. As previously discussed, task conflict can be productive, and is a necessary element in all our organizations.
The challenge emerges when conflict starts to become unhealthy, moving away from the task and targeting the individual people involved. For example, perhaps David, Robert and Brett have discussed possible markets for expansion of their business, and David and Robert are directly in conflict. David believes they should explore the Atlanta market for expansion, while Robert believes strongly in focusing on Washington, D.C. A healthy conflict exchange might involve David saying, “Robert, I disagree with your assessment. I’ve looked over all the numbers and projections, and it seems clear to me that Atlanta offers us the most potential with the least amount of risk.” The conversation here focuses on the task. Notice that David is not shying away from his opinion, nor just relenting to preserve harmony and avoid conflict. However, he is concentrating on the issue at hand, rather than the person, Robert, with whom he is disagreeing. An unhealthy conflict exchange might have David replying, “Robert, how can you feel confident about what you’re saying? Remember the Phoenix disaster? We all listened to you and look how that turned out. You cost us millions of dollars, and I’m not going to let you ruin this again. Atlanta is the right answer.” In this scenario, David still voiced his opinion, but, in the process, managed to attack Robert personally.
This scenario is a bit simplified, but it illustrates the differences in healthy, productive task conflict and unhealthy, unproductive relationship or interpersonal conflict. In any situation where conflict is present, it is wise for those involved to ask themselves — “Is this conflict focused on the issue or on the person?”
Unhealthy conflict typically targets people, including their personalities, shortcomings, failures and mistakes. There is a huge difference between stating that an idea will not work and stating the person is stupid for suggesting the idea. Unhealthy conflict creates interpersonal issues that will carry forward into future conversations, perpetuating a vicious cycle of unproductive tension and aggressive conversations. It is likely that David, Robert and Brett spend most of their time fighting about issues from the past, not the current issues facing them. If the executive team at Salandar Construction Company continues to have these kinds of conversations, morale will plummet, productivity will deteriorate and people may be so dissatisfied they leave.
So what can David do? When a team is mired in unhealthy conflict, what can it do to stop the unnecessary fighting and instead engage in healthy conflict? The first step has already been mentioned: Focus on the issues, not the people. Disagreements based on personal or relational problems are harder to resolve and often get in the way of accomplishing work goals. One strategy for encouraging task versus people conflict is to establish “civility rules” that depersonalize conflict so that people can fully engage with the most pressing business issues. Some civility rules may include asking people to be respectful and not interrupt one another, minimizing snickering and promoting openness to all ideas. In David’s situation, he could ensure that all conversations focused on the key issues and were free of any kind of personal attack. Secondly, he could actively listen to Robert and Brett.
PRACTICE ACTIVE LISTENING
Listening might seem like an unlikely solution for unhealthy conflict, but it is one of the most powerful tactics an individual can use to build strong relationships. Think back to an unhealthy conflict situation you were in — how much time did you spend listening and how much time did you spend talking? In most cases, individuals engaged in unhealthy conflict will listen just long enough to identify something they disagree with and then leap in to voice their opposite opinion. It is extremely difficult to have productive dialogue when we are always on the defense, waiting to defend our point of view. By remaining quiet and actively listening to the other person, we will start creating a safer environment for others to express their opinions.
The power of listening is also supported by Dale Carnegie, a well-known business author, who discussed how “becoming genuinely interested in people” and “be[ing] a good listener” are instrumental in developing thriving relationships.4 One strategy for strengthening active listening skills is to take a more objective perspective and listen to someone else as an “outsider.” With this point of view, your emotions and personal opinions are shoved to the side, and you become free to hear the other person’s story with open ears and no hidden agenda. Even though David and Robert clearly disagree on the market expansion plans for their business, it would be helpful for them to acknowledge each other’s opinions and listen actively with the intent to learn from the conversation. In addition to being an active listener, David could also reframe the difficult situation he is facing.
REFRAME THE CURRENT SITUATION
Reframing is another conflict management technique that leaders can use to look at a situation from a different angle or perspective. Even though David believes Salandar Construction Company should focus on expansion in the Atlanta market, and Robert believes it should target the Washington, D.C., area, it is important for David to try to understand Robert’s point of view. Reframing the conflict may involve David asking helpful questions around why Robert believes Washington, D.C., could be a profitable market and how expansion in this area fits well with the long-term vision of the company. Asking clarifying questions, engaging in deep reflection and challenging assumptions about a person or situation are different techniques David could use to reframe the conflict in a more positive way in order to create new insights and deepen his understanding of other points of view. Too often we perceive conflict as a “negative thing” — something that needs to be immediately managed and eliminated if we want to progress. By refocusing our attention on what we can learn from each other in difficult, high-conflict situations, we open ourselves up to hear things in new ways and establish higher-quality relationships with our colleagues. In addition to reframing conflict in a different way, David could also focus on digging deep to get to the “real” source of conflict on his team.
Ongoing, unresolved team conflict can negatively affect productivity and work relationships. In order to manage tension among team members, one must first acknowledge that conflict exists and then search for the potential “root causes” of work-related disagreements. For example, conflict may occur because of different communication styles, misunderstandings, dissimilar values and beliefs, high stress, and/or a heavy workload, among other reasons. Once the real source of tension has been identified, appropriate actions can be taken to resolve this conflict. For David and the leadership team, the real issue may not actually be deciding which markets are best for business expansion. The source of their tension may run deeper and actually be distilled down to a lack of trust among David, Robert and Brett due to previous miscommunication on earlier projects. Identifying that a lack of trust is the root cause of the team’s tension will help each of these leaders strategize ideas for moving forward as a cohesive unit. Alternatively, David also could encourage his leadership team to focus on shared goals.
When individuals lack goal clarity, are unsure of expectations or perceive competing objectives within their team, there is a high likelihood for conflict. One potential strategy for managing this source of tension is identifying shared goals — those overarching, common objectives that everyone on the team is striving to achieve. By highlighting the similarities rather than core differences among team members, it is possible to boost cooperation and collaboration. If you look at members of highly effective work teams, these individuals invest great energy and effort to achieve team objectives rather than individual goals. At Salandar Construction Company, where the leadership team is constantly arguing about finances, strategies and processes, it is clear that this team has lost sight of the bigger picture and their core team objectives. Switching the focus to shared goals from competing goals can help these leaders see eye to eye and gain a greater understanding of what they need to accomplish together. Beyond goal clarity, David and the rest of his executive team could also benefit immensely from improved emotion management.
Conflict, of any kind, elicits intense emotional reactions. For example, tense relationships in the workplace can generate feelings of distress, anger, disappointment and anxiety. Individuals who are capable of managing their emotions, especially during times of high conflict, are more likely to resolve work-related disagreements in an effective, healthy manner. By developing high-quality emotion management skills, you will strengthen your relationships, foster greater trust and enhance mutual understanding. On the other hand, individuals who lack emotional control, those without insight or the ability to rein in their emotions before they communicate, are less likely to resolve differences, calmly and respectfully. For the leadership team at Salandar Construction Company, everyone needs a good, hard lesson in emotion management. Imagine how much more effective this team could be if David, Robert and Brett were more aware of their own emotions and better able to control these feelings before speaking to each other about difficult issues. Too often we get in our own way by letting our emotions run the conversation. One final approach that would benefit this senior leadership team is training on conflict management.
DEVELOP CONFLICT MANAGEMENT SKILLS
If you search “conflict resolution training” on the Internet, you come up with more than 10 million hits. “Conflict management training” yields almost 8 million hits. These numbers clearly highlight the value that many place on learning and developing skills on managing conflict. According to a CPP Global Human Capital Report, “Training is the biggest driver for high-quality outcomes from conflict.”5 A survey of more than 5,000 full-time employees across nine countries revealed that more than 95% of those who received some kind of conflict resolution training at work believed it to be helpful. More specifically, of those who had received training, 27% believed that training helped them gain confidence in their abilities to manage disagreements and tension, and 58% said they now pay attention to the “win-win” benefits that can emerge from a conflict situation. With such a long history of unresolved tension and ongoing arguments, the senior leadership team at Salandar Construction Company would likely benefit immensely from taking a course on conflict management or conflict resolution.
David and his colleagues have many available options to help manage conflict and tension in the workplace. These leaders would be more effective if they focused on the issues rather than the people involved, practiced active listening, reframed the current situation, identified the root cause of worker disagreements, clarified shared goals, better managed their emotions and/or developed conflict resolution skills through training. Each of these strategies equips individuals with the proper tools to engage with others who may have different views and opinions. When handled effectively, conflict can lead to positive outcomes, such as enhanced self-awareness, better teamwork, a more open and tolerant environment, and greater personal growth. Conflict is a reality in today’s workplace that unfortunately comes with a hefty price tag. To find out what conflict might be costing you and your organization, take the quiz in Exhibit 1.
If you are ready to be a more successful leader, what is one thing you can do today to minimize the risks and enhance the benefits of conflict in your organization?
Tim Tokarczyk is a consultant with FMI Corporation. He can be reached at 303.398.7222 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1 Washington Business Journal. May 2005.
2 CPP.com survey. 2008.
3 CPP.com survey. 2008.
4 Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” 1936, 1964, 1981.
5 CPP.com survey. 2008.