Conflict is strange. A few people seem to thrive on it, most people do their best to manage it when it comes up, and a small minority simply avoid it at any cost. Whenever people come together, there will be different points of view, and sometimes these result in conflicts. As a leader, you have your own perception of conflict, and at the same time you have to cope with all of your colleagues’ perceptions. What’s a struggling leader to do?
Avoiding conflict at all costs is probably not the best option. Avoidance might appear to work for a while, but it isn’t a good long-term solution. Serious conflicts need to be addressed and a solution found, if at all possible. Conversely, raising every issue that arises and discussing it ad nauseum might not be the best solution, either. Some conflicts, especially the small ones, resolve themselves with time. Besides, dealing with conflict is exhausting and frustrating for the people involved.
The option that’s left is managing conflict. Effective leaders do their best to remain calm and objective, and they address conflicts in a direct, purposeful way. If there weren’t at least two valid perspectives on any issue, it wouldn’t be an issue and there probably wouldn’t be a conflict. Leaders must do their best to understand all points of view and guide the conversation toward the best solution.
Ineffective leaders might avoid conflicts, issue edicts that attempt to solve the problem even if they don’t understand it, or become so upset that nothing is resolved. Conflict management is a skill can be learned. Training programs that focus on enhancing negotiation skills can be extremely valuable for people at all levels of an organization.
Listening well is one of the major components of managing conflict. Many people think they are listening to what others have to say, when what they are really doing is preparing their own response in their minds. They can miss important points. One technique to improve your listening skills is to repeat back in your own words what the other person has said, checking to make sure you have gotten it right. When people feel heard, they are more likely to hear what other people are saying, and this makes resolution much more straightforward.
After listening to both sides in a dispute, try to get people to focus on their common goals. People at work are trying to come up with a good product or service, and in some situations their goals may conflict. Reminding people of their common goals is a good starting place.
You will not always be able to reach consensus on the best solution to a conflict. In those circumstances, you will have to make a decision. That is your role as leader. In this situation, all you can do is explain your reasoning clearly and respectfully and allow a cooling-off period. Your team members will have to respect your decisions and work to carry them out.
If you aren’t sure how to respond to a conflict situation, you might benefit by talking it over with a peer before making your decision. This sort of agreement with a colleague to talk over each other’s problem situations can be mutually beneficial.
Overreaction to conflictual situations can be a significant problem for a leader. No one wants to overreact, but none of us is perfect, and everyone will have an emotional reaction to certain issues. When that happens, do your best to calm down. This might involve taking some deep breaths, counting to ten before you speak, or excusing yourself from the room until you have regained your composure. If possible, try to understand what it is about these situations that leads to this overreaction, and speak to a trusted colleague about how to respond in a more measured way.
Conflict is a part of life, and managing it can be difficult. However, resolving conflicts so that the work proceeds smoothly can be a rewarding part of your leadership role.