Manage Conflict! (or it will manage you)

Met-the-enemyConflict is a fact of life for most people. In a 2008 study, CPP found that 85% of workers in the US experience conflict to some degree and 29% report that they experience it “always” or “frequently”. (CPP 2008)

Constructive conflict is well accepted as a key indicator of high performing teams. In a comparative study of five globally accepted team effectiveness models, Korn Ferry, a leading authority on leadership and talent, found that four of the five frameworks featured conflict management as a key issue for effective teamwork. (Michael Lombardo 2001)

CPP found that when employees are trained how to manage conflict, over 95% of those people say that it helped them in some way. A quarter (27%) say it made them more comfortable and confident in managing disputes and 58% of those who had received training said they now look for win–win outcomes from conflict.

41% of employees think older people handle conflict most effectively. Seven out of ten employees (70%) see managing conflict as a “very” or “critically” important leadership skill, while 54% of employees think managers could handle disputes better by addressing underlying tensions before things go wrong.

But, when it goes bad, it goes bad in a hurry.

In the same research, 27% of employees reported that unmanaged conflict led to personal attacks, and 25% of them saw it result in sickness or absence.  Almost ten percent saw it lead to a project failure.


What can consulting leaders do to model and teach this critical skill within their teams?

Here are five steps you can take now to help your teams benefit from constructive conflict and avoid the negative results of poorly managed conflict

1.  First, assess where you and your teams stand. Consider these questions and discuss them with your teams:

  • How passionate and unguarded are team members able to be in discussing issues?
  • On a scale from “exciting” to “boring”, how do team members experience their meetings?
  • Do team members prioritize the toughest issues for attention, or avoid them?
  • How comfortable are team members in challenging one another about conclusions, plans, and approaches?

2.  Communicate! Make it clear in what you say and how you act, that conflict is normal and necessary, but unmanaged conflict is costly in many ways.

3.  Teach your team to communicate. Establish rules of engagement that help teams manage conflicts in a productive way. Focus on asking great questions, and getting everyone involved in formulating the answers. Encourage the shy ones to speak up and tell the aggressive ones to pipe down. Help your team develop emotional intelligence and relationship skills. Pay particular attention to empathy and assertiveness.

4.  Focus on issues and not people. When conflicts turn personal, turn them around to return to the issues that count. Teach your teams the analysis skills that enable the root cause analysis skills to identify the most important issues.

5.  Ferret out the “elephants in the room”. Chris Argyris calls an elephant an “undiscussable”.  Undiscussable topics become that way in order to “avoid surprise, embarrassment, or threat.”  In other words, a taboo. When elephants are running free in the room, the credibility of the organization and that of any leaders within sight are at significant risk.

Help your people stop avoiding conflict and become world-class at it.  In doing so, you and your clients will get their best, and they will develop a skill that will differentiate them (and you) for the rest of their careers.

End Notes:

Argyris, C. (1988). Managing with People in Mind, Harvard Business Review Press.

CPP, I. (2008). CPP Global Human Capital Report: Workplace Conflict And How Businesses Can Harness It To Thrive.

Michael Lombardo, R. E., Cara Capretta, Victoria Swisher (2001). FYI for Teams. Minneapolis, MN, Lominger International.


About Jim Cooper

Jim Cooper is a leadership consultant and executive coach. He is the founder and principal of Ascendent Leadership LLC. Jim focuses his work on helping firms to develop their leadership skills, team effectiveness, and emotional intelligence and to support that development with coaching. He is especially committed to helping leaders deploy coaching skills broadly within their organizations. Jim believes that world class leaders: 1. Understand that true success “is not just about the numbers” 2. Lead from a mindset of serving their teams and enabling their personal growth and success 3. Help their teams see their individual roles as critically linked to the success of the organizations mission, and the success of others that they care about within the organization 4. Focus their teams on building the commitment to excellence and personal growth that make success a habit and truly sustainable over their lives and careers 5. Create a sustainable coaching culture by broadly deploying coaching skills through their leadership ranks.
This entry was posted in Client Relationships, Critical Thinking, Emotional Intelligence, Motivation, Organizational Culture, Organizational Teamwork, Team Development. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *