The power of conflict

A research paper entitled “Workplace Dispute Resolution and the Management of Individual Conflict — A Thematic Analysis of Five Case Studies” has been published. The thematic review “aims to provide new insights into the challenges faced by organisations in managing conflict.” It throws some light on the power of conflict in the workplace.

There are many great insights in this review.  Informal/formal processes and mediation aren’t very successful. It seems that capacity and capability issues for managers and HR professionals mean a lack of attention to an extremely costly issue in the workplace. There are some conclusions about cultivating more trust and developing creativity around solving conflict at work.

Changing mindsets around conflict

In my article, Burying the Hatchet on Workplace Disputes, I identify 8 mindset shifts to be considered when dealing with unhealthy disputes at work.  There is another side to workplace conflict which should be an integral part of leadership and management development. This is the art of nipping unhealthy conflict in the bud and pivoting to a healthy perspective. There are several ways healthy conflict can benefit a business. Recognising this can lead to a more innovative, inclusive and learning mindset around disputes. When this approach is made, then organisations can harness the power of conflict.

When married couples claim they “have never had a cross word”. The consensus is they are either completely deluded or the relationship isn’t very deep. (I do believe such relationships exist, I just haven’t seen one, but I know you are out there!). Likewise, if all conflict were erased from the workplace, there would be a slight feeling of unease because it might all seem a tad sterile. Some conflict is inevitable at work. Some of that can be seen as healthy and harnessing the power of conflict.

Research on “constructive controversy” or “constructive conflict”, asserts that structured conflict can lead to innovation and creativity. There is also a consensus that conflict can be meaningful and necessary for the workplace. As a coach, I have found that there are many ways to harness the power of conflict, which can mean an increase in self-awareness, learning and growth. Some of the ways conflict can be seen as positive are by

Recognising and changing entrenched patterns of creating and resolving disputes

Use conflict to become aware of conflict resolution styles. Becoming aware there are (often unconscious) ways we prefer to deal with conflict can often break the patterns parties involved in the conflict have become entrenched in. Pointing to different styles and becoming aware of different ways of managing conflict in different situations can raise awareness of one’s effectiveness in such situations.

Releasing negative energy

Unresolved negative energy at work lying unspoken can thicken the atmosphere. If it is there long enough, it becomes part of the fabric of the workplace. Unresolved negative energy will unknowingly sabotage your efforts. Often a conflict situation is the opportunity to clear negative energy.

Using as a catalyst for renewal

Like a volcano erupting, unexpected conflict can cause great damage and unnecessary suffering. There is usually an aftermath and then a time for renewal. While it is important to respect the aftermath of the conflict, it’s also important to understand right at the point of eruption that an intention for renewal must be a focal point.

Learning to see and accept the validity of different perspectives

There are many ways conflict occurs. The most common factor is each person involved may think they are right and the other wrong. It is usually a refusal to see and accept another’s point of view. An otherwise untapped broadening of the mind can be achieved when part of the resolution process is to see things from different perspectives.

Defining “Wanted Behaviours”

Sometimes we don’t know what good is until we experience “not good”. One way conflict can be used positively is to use it as a comparison to underline the behaviours or practices you don’t want to see at work. Reinforcing the ones you do. To be effective, the comparison should discuss the impact of behaviours although shouldn’t be made within a blame culture. Otherwise, it will simply induce guilt. If the comparison is seen as a learning tool then the focus can be positive.

Improve emotional Intelligence

Without conflict, we can usually remain in our comfort zone. This might feel nice, but it keeps us from growing and living our lives to the full. Conflict can contain many learning opportunities which can take us out of this zone and by its very nature is uncomfortable! By feeling uncomfortable, we can learn about our emotions and so increase the opportunity to develop our emotional intelligence.

Ask “What have you learned?”

Too often when a conflict situation arises, people involved focus on the incident/situation/sequence of events. There may be a telling or recounting of the circumstances leading up to the conflict. What usually is the response is for someone to try to decide on the rightness or not of the behaviours/words or actions involved in the conflict. A different way is to pivot the attention away from the actual source of the conflict and focus on what has been learned as a result of the conflict.

Effective conflict resolution can save money

Although conflict can be healthy,  destructive conflict can be costly unless you have the measures in place when things go wrong. To combat the negative influences, thoughtful conflict resolution management can be a valuable tool for any organisation.  Most HR professionals understand how to identify and implement conflict resolution management in any business.

Most organisations experience conflict at some time.  Conflict can arise within teams or with individual colleaguesDisputes resolved in the right way are a healthy part of working with others.  Professional HR practitioners can help to get to the root causes of any conflict.  It can help an organisation to change if it is experiencing a culture of conflict.  An organisation adopting good conflict resolution management is purposeful in highlighting and solving problems in the workplace.

The dynamics of conflict resolution

When considering the components of conflict resolution, there are two dynamics to take into account. The first is about conflict resolution styles, the second is about differences in personality type.  If we aren’t sure how people tick, then personality clashes can get in the way of effective conflict resolution.

1. Thomas-Kilmann conflict mode instrument

The Thomas-Kilman Conflict Model sets out 5 different styles of conflict resolution, describing the way different people operate.  By understanding these two ways of approaching conflict, you can empower staff and managers to handle differences in a completely new way.

Everyone has a way of dealing with conflict that is unique to them.  An organisation has a “culture” of dealing with conflict that often has nothing to do with the policies and values of the company. It is very powerful for an organisation to understand how they can use different styles of conflict resolution in different situations to get a win/win result.

2. Personality and conflict

Understanding personality types can identify the causes of conflict. MBTI can help individuals and teams to understand differences, by helping people understand how they and others, operate.   The result can be less conflict and greater harmony in the workplace.     A good Human Resources or an MBTI practitioner can help your organisation navigate through the maze of conflict by:

    • Helping raise awareness of conflict and solutions
    • Supporting leaders to understand their style and way of operating
    • Helping teams and individuals to understand different personality types and raising awareness of the benefits of difference
    • Offer mediation where any conflicts have become formal
    • Help organisations to have effective policies and processes to deal with conflict in a timely and effective way
    • Help Managers understand their legislative obligations, particularly around the Equality Act 2010

Understanding conflict resolution styles and personality types, organisations are well equipped to pivot conflict to create a healthy culture of airing differences.

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I help leaders develop self- mastery, helping them to become confident in their own inner guidance.

I collaborate with leadership experts, managers and HR professionals to help them get their own message and unique services and products to a wide audience.