CONFLICT IS A REGULAR PART of organization life. Whenever people form a team responsible for accomplishing an objective, they are going to have disagreements. Misunderstandings, personality clashes, and differences of opinion are standard fare for team interaction. At best, these conflicts provide an opportunity to learn and a chance for innovation. At worst, they can destroy individuals and bring productivity and effectiveness to a grinding halt.
Since conflict is such a common event that often produces important results, our goal as project leaders and individual team members should not be to eliminate it. Instead, we should create an environment that encourages and maintains the positive and productive aspects of conflict. The problem is not so much conflict itself, but how teams deal with it. Not every conflict can be resolved, but we should at least approach all conflict with a mindset to seek constructive resolution.
When we are in conflict with another team member, the first step we often take toward resolution is to offer additional information intended to demonstrate the logic and reasoning that supports our view of a fair solution. When the parties remain unconvinced, we typically try harder to convince them by persuading, arguing, manipulating, sulking, bullying, or withdrawing from the interaction. Very often, this process proves time-consuming and frustrating, and the conflict ends without a satisfactory resolution. In the team environment, what started as one-on-one conflict can also create additional conflicts with teammates who are frustrated with the dispute. All parties walk away from the interaction thinking, “Why don’t they listen to me?”
Exactly—listening is the key to constructive conflict resolution. The issue in conflict is not whether the other party listens to us, but rather whether we listen to and understand the other party’s perspective. Only after we have listened to the other party will that party listen to us; only after the other party feels understood will that party want to understand and be influenced by us.
By seeking first to identify and understand the needs and interests of the other party, we create an environment that increases the chances of resolving the dispute in a way that is satisfactory to all parties involved. To achieve a true win-win resolution, we must first help the other party identify the criteria that will help that person achieve a “win.” The trust and relationship bonding that occurs as a result will prepare the other party to listen to our needs.
This collaborative process provides the information and emotional support necessary for collaborative problem solving. By creating a framework for moving beyond competition to cooperation, we can better identify a shared goal—the basis for true teamwork.
Collaboration requires that conflict resolution proceed through a series of steps that creates more effective interaction. Disputing parties must understand that each step is an important ingredient of the relationship-building process that leads to creative, team-based solutions. The steps progress logically and should be departed from only to return to a previous step as a means of enhancing the relationship and increasing understanding.
Prepare for the Interaction. Whether ongoing controversy or a new dispute, a few moments of focused attention prior to interaction will improve our effectiveness. Even if we are highly skilled and experienced in the resolution process, preparation for the current situation will help us remain constructive throughout the interaction.
Preparation gives us the big-picture perspective. It helps us think through the issues of conflict and try to come to an initial understanding of the interests involved for both us and the other party. We should spend almost as much time preparing for the interaction as we expect to spend resolving the conflict. In preparing, consider the following:
What is the nature of the disagreement?
What is the position of each party? What does each hope to accomplish?
What will happen if we cannot resolve the issue?
What information are we lacking to help us fully understand the situation?
What is the history of the relationship between the disputing parties?
Who has more power? Where does that power originate?
Do we each have the authority to make and follow through on commitments?
Initiate the Exchange. Just because one team member has identified a troubling issue does not mean that the other person is aware of the problem. People’s orientation to conflict may minimize their desire or ability for confrontation. They may not understand the specific problem, or they may lack conflict-management skills. Whatever the reason, we often have to initiate the exchange. How we communicate our problem will determine whether the confrontation escalates the tensions or keeps the resolution constructive.
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The secret of constructive resolution is managing the emotions that can ignite by the dispute. Conflicts turn into battles because we ignore them. Rather than confronting the other person, we sit on the issue—often until we are ready to explode. It is critical that team members are encouraged to initiate the exchange, which involves:
Confronting. Let the other party know that there is an issue to discuss; communicate in a supportive, open-ended manner. When confronting, it is important to communicate the problem, and then demonstrate a desire to listen to the other person.
Involving. The reason we listen to conflict is to involve the other party. Involving means asking for that person’s perspective, opinion, feedback, and help.
Problem Solving. Listen for the other person’s perspectives, needs, and interests, and invite his analysis of the situation.
Facilitate the Relationship. For collaboration to succeed, both parties must be motivated to work together rather than compete. One can initiate the process, but eventually both must be in the collaborative mode in order to resolve the issue.
To facilitate the relationship during conflict, we must demonstrate a willingness to be open, and show that we trust the other person by sharing meaningful personal information. When both parties in conflict communicate openly and honestly, their needs and concerns can be identified. This provides the information required to shift the conflict from a positional dispute to interest-based problem solving. Interestingly, open communication by one person creates open communication by the other. The more we reveal about ourselves, the more the other person will reveal to us.
We also need to strive to create a positive and supportive emotional environment so that others feel good for having interacted with us. This can be accomplished by listening and trying to understand the issues, interests, and needs of the other person.
Interaction should be frequent. Shared interests and needs build a common sense of purpose that makes the objective issues easier to manage and strengthens teamwork.
Understand the Interests. Understanding the interests accomplishes two tasks critical to resolving the dispute. First, we learn the underlying interests and needs that are important to the other party, which must be satisfied if constructive resolution is to occur. We identify why the other person wants what she wants. Second, we establish the criteria for solutions. We identify how we will know if the agreement has fulfilled the interests of those involved. This is where listening skills are more important.
The second aspect of understanding the interests involves identifying the criteria by which the ultimate agreement will be measured. When an objective measurement system is established, both parties are counting the same things. If we hope to facilitate a long-lasting, constructive resolution, we need a tool to make sure that the agreed-upon solutions satisfy both sides.
Examine the Solutions. The search for solutions is the creative part of the collaboration process. Once both parties understand the interests and have established the criteria for solution, they can then generate a variety of possible options to solve the identified problems. A variety of team-based techniques, such as brainstorming or mind mapping, can be used to maximize creative potential and generate a host of ideas. Both parties should ensure that ideas are not criticized or judged as unworkable, too expensive, unrealistic, or too abstract. Third parties can also be invited to the process of generating ideas, as they can provide needed expertise or merely a fresh perspective on the situation.
Reach Consensus. Once options have been identified, all parties involved should evaluate the alternatives. Consensus is achieved when each party in conflict feels that he has been heard and understood by the other, is able to live with the decision or solution, and is willing to commit to his role during implementation.
Mediating Conflict. When team meetings disintegrate into tension-filled shouting matches, project leaders often have to intervene and facilitate the resolution process. As mediators, the goal is not simply to help parties agree, but also to develop and enhance constructive conflict-resolution skills within the team. Managing team conflict constructively involves making sure that interaction is based on a common set of objectives:
Shared Perception of Reality. By building and strengthening shared realities, project leaders create new affiliations that facilitate relationships and increase understanding of individual interests. The result is a shift from “us vs. them” resistance to collaborative efforts based on the acceptance of unique individual creative contribution within the team.
Results-Oriented Operating Agreements. Operating agreements are the “rules” that guide creative, team-based interaction. These rules help us keep perspective; we recognize that sometimes team conflict does not necessarily feel constructive, but that is part of the larger process. The agreements should identify clearly the results required in order to achieve win-win solutions, as well as the objective, measurable criteria that will be used to assess results. In addition, they should identify how the team will measure the output to determine whether the solution meets expectations.
Clarified Roles and Accountabilities. For operating agreements to foster collaborative success, teams must establish clear delineation of the results expected by each interdependent contributor. Desired outcomes, communication requirements, resource conditions, and expertise should drive these roles. Teams should clarify areas of accountability, but should create some overlap that forces interaction.
Consensus Decision-Making. The consensus building process manages the emotional elements and personal issues, and helps team members feel understood. Mediators should not “decide” how to resolve the conflict.
Formalized Conflict-Resolution Process. A formalized process gives the team permission to take a “time out” from its task orientation to manage conflicts as they occur.
BY USING LISTENING as the means of guiding conflict from positional disagreement to an exchange of thoughts and ideas, project leaders can create an atmosphere of trust and collaboration. This enhances team interaction and leads to more innovative and effective results. Team members who adopt a collaborative focus learn to seek solutions that will satisfy themselves while simultaneously satisfying others. Team conflicts are then more easily transformed from bickering and competition to opportunities to learn, innovate, and grow. ■
Erik J. Van Slyke is a principal with HR Alliance, a human resources consulting and training firm based in Greensboro, N.C., USA, who specializes in organization development and human resources management. He is the author of Listening to Conflict: Finding Constructive Solutions to Workplace Disputes [AMACOM, 1999].