Friday, 19 July 2013 13:41

Facing Conflict Effectively

“When conflict is ignored– especially at the top– the result will be an enterprise that competes more passionately with itself than with its competitors.”— Howard M. Guttman, When Goliaths Clash, 2003.

Managers spend an inordinate amount of time putting out fires, particularly interpersonal ones. A manager may spend 20 percent of his or her time managing conflict of one degree or another.

As long as Western culture values democratic processes and individual freedom, there will be those who are encouraged to debate. This is not necessarily bad because innovative ideas often spring from those who refuse to “go along just to get along.” Left alone, conflict and interpersonal stress only get worse. However, companies that try to eliminate conflict are as doomed to failure as those who try to ignore it. Managed well, conflict can motivate and energise individuals to stretch themselves, to be open to learning from others different from themselves, and to move beyond status quo operations.

Some predict that conflict is increasing in organisations because of the pressure on people to produce more and better with less. Uncertain job security, a fluctuating economy and the stress of technological advancements, provide more factors that put people on edge.

There is a strong link between the ability to resolve conflict effectively and perceived effectiveness as a leader. According to research from the Management Development Institute of Eckerd College, managers who resolve conflict by perspective taking, creating solutions, expressing emotions and reaching out are considered to be effective. Executives who demonstrate these behaviours are seen as successful and more suitable for promotion.

Three Sources of Conflict

Three factors contributing to conflict in organisations are:

  1.     Differences in behaviour and communicating styles
  2.     Differences in priorities and values
  3.     Workplace conditions, including poor communications from leaders

Some personalities just seem to clash. It is important to determine why two people rub each other the wrong way. Do they have opposing behaviour styles?

Understanding basic human differences can help people overcome being judgemental and to accept differences. Training in any of several assessment tools, for example MBTI, TMS, or 360’s, is a good start.  Taking the time to understand basic differences can prevent personality clashes and conflict before these become on-going problems.

Expectations and Assumptions

People have different needs, values, beliefs, assumptions, experience levels, expectations and cultural frameworks. When people form expectations for the future (based on their experiences and interpretations of the past) their perceptions of reality can differ from one another, and conflict can arise.

Inquiring about values can help clarify issues. Behind every complaint there is an underlying value that is not being satisfied. Asking questions such as, “What’s really important here?” often leads to uncovering competing values and conflicting priorities. Creating more authentic conversations by asking the right questions is the first step toward managing conflict.

Communication Skills

There are essentially three communication styles: non-assertive, assertive and aggressive. We all have a preferential habit or style of communicating, and we are capable of switching from one to another as appropriate. The problem is that we aren’t always aware of the way others may perceive us. While we may think we are being appropriately assertive, someone else who is more sensitive or who harbours resentment may perceive us as aggressive. Add to the mix the fact that we all have personal agendas and it is easy to see how communications break down and breed conflict.


193 300x114 Facing Conflict Effectively

non-assertive – assertive – aggressive

Executive Sources of Conflict

Executives may contribute to conflict by being ambiguous in their communications–giving mixed messages either intentionally or unintentionally. They may encourage dialogue and questions about sensitive issues, yet their behaviour or communication style discourages candour in others.

Notwithstanding the best of intentions, executives may be blinded to their own communication errors. Working with an executive coach can help correct the ways that an executive may be contributing to conflict without even knowing it.

Organisational Sources of Conflict

An organisation with a rigid hierarchical structure and an authoritarian leadership culture is fertile ground for conflict. Usually such places have a strong rumour mill, because open communications are not encouraged. There may be a poorly instituted reward/promotional system where unfair favouritism occurs.

Another source of conflict is limited resources. When managers have to compete with each other for resources, their competitive agendas can limit their abilities to get along with others to the detriment of the organisation.  They become more concerned with their own personal success or that of the business unit.

Change itself can destabilise relations, because people struggle when they are moved out of their comfort zones. Rapidly changing environments like those arising from mergers and acquisitions, create a ripe atmosphere for stress, anxiety and conflict.

Keys to Managing Conflict Effectively

When conflict occurs, we typically respond in one of four different ways:

  1.     Play the victim, complain and create alliances against the offending party;
  2.     Withdraw physically, emotionally or mentally;
  3.     Back down and creatively change your original stance; or
  4.     Confront each other honestly, openly and candidly which is one of the most effective ways of facing conflict.

Asking the right questions to reveal underlying assumptions, expectations and values is essential. When conflict escalates, it must be addressed as soon as possible, before it becomes chronic or pervasive. Here are six keys to consider when addressing conflict:

  1.     Create rules of engagement. Establish procedures and rules for addressing conflict fairly.
  2.     Demonstrate the importance of caring. Create an atmosphere of trust by starting with the other person’s agenda and listening attentively. Check in consistently to clarify what they mean.
  3.     Depersonalise the issues. Focus on behaviours, the problems and the commitments agreed at the end of the conversation – not on personalities.
  4.     Don’t triangulate or bring in political allies.
  5.     Know when to let it go.
  6.     Know when to bring in a professional mediator, coach or trainer.

People who practice honest and candid conversations are perceived as more effective and more suitable for promotion. Every conversation is a means of developing trust and commitment. Asking meaningful questions about what really matters results in relationships that are more authentic. Conflict is averted because people have a chance to say what they really mean.


Resources Managing Conflict

Argyris, C. (1986, September-October). Skilled Incompetence. Harvard Business Review.

Cartwright, T. (2003) Managing Conflict with Peers. Center for Creative Leadership Press.

“Facing Conflict? It’s a Leader’s Lot.” (2003, January). Center for Creative Leadership. Retrieved May 8, 2004 from

Guttman, H. M. (2003). When Goliaths Clash: Managing Executive Conflict to Build a More Dynamic Organisation. AMACOM.

Harkins, P. (1999). Powerful Conversations: How High Impact Leaders Communicate. McGraw-Hill.

Harkins, P. (2002, November 15). Communication Strategies for Effective Leaders- An Interview by Todd Langton. Link & Learn. Retrieved May 8, 2004 from

Patterson, K., Grenny, J., McMillan, R., Switzler, A., Covey, S. R. (2002). Difficult Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High. McGraw Hill.

Pickering, P. (2000). How to Manage Conflict: Turn All Conflicts into Win-Win Outcomes. Career Press.

Scott, S. (2002). Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success at Work and in Life, One Conversation at a Time. Viking Press, a division of Penguin Putnam, Inc.

Stone, D., Patton, B., Heen, S., & Fisher, R. (2000). Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss what Matters Most. Penguin Books.

Ursiny, T. (2003) Coward’s Guide to Conflict: Empowering Solutions for Those who Would Rather Run than Fight. Sourcebooks Trade.

Worrall, D (2009) A Climate for Change- How to Ride the Wave of Change into the 21st Century, Life Success Publishing.


Active Tree Services: Vegetation Management

“We were looking to take our people strategy to a new level, breaking new ground and in a lot of ways challenging norms that organisations hold too...


Pacific Power: Energy

"Your leadership of the organisation wide change project was impressive, demonstrating great ability during a very difficult period and successfully...


Fiserv: Financial Services

"Thankyou for your contributions to our … project, HR strategy, change management program and communications. I have been personally enriched...


Director Europe Imports Pty. Ltd

“Di’s coaching has helped me to find a more solid concentration of priorities, closer scrutiny of the business, more confidence to make better...


Human Capital Magazine

“Author Di Worrall… has a knack for bringing broad concepts of social change and applying those concepts to the business world. Her excellent...