I have been thinking a lot lately about conflict and conflict resolution. We are certainly seeing it played out on a daily basis in the news. Although I think we can all agree that some level of conflict is unavoidable, we do seem to have it in abundance and it is coming more and more because we are so polarizing in our communications with those around us. However, how we face it and resolve that conflict says a great deal about our own leadership styles and abilities.
Conflict as Opportunity
Consider the following statement by Warren Bennis, one of the foremost writers on leadership and organizational and management theory.
“Leaders do not avoid, repress, or deny conflict, but rather see it as an opportunity.”
Leaders, this is one of your primary responsibilities. I believe strongly in delegating. But, you cannot delegate this one. Nor can you pretend that conflicts do not occur within your organization. I have spent much of my adult life working in the corporate world during the week and serving in a non-profit and volunteer organization on weeknights and weekends. And conflict is common to all organizations. Yes, even within churches and religious organizations. But you, as leaders, have the responsibility to sense a conflict at its earliest stages and resolve it before it affects the entire organization.
True leaders do not avoid or run from conflict. I am not proclaiming that they go and seek it out or invent it where it does not exist. But, leaders lead in times of calm and in times of conflict. And by the way, while we are on this subject, let’s not just “manage” the conflict, let’s “resolve” it once and for all!
Conflict Resolution is an art as much as it is a science. The goal of conflict resolution is to assess and resolve disputes at the lowest level possible and do so before they escalate into something major.
What is Conflict?
Conflict is fundamentally an indication of a miscommunication that has an enhanced level of emotion attached to it. It could begin as a request for clarification based upon a perception. And, depending on how that clarification is requested, received, and interpreted, it can lead to a conflict.
Conflict and Conflict Resolution Require Emotional Agility
Effective conflict resolution is accomplished by one’s ability to control two things: yourself (who you are) and your attitude (how you act). Emotional Intelligence (EI) plays a tremendous role in the outcome of a conflict. EI deals with both of these aspects in terms of how self-aware we are and then how well we manage ourselves. Conflicts can arise quickly and seemingly without warning. Se must have Emotionally Agility (EA) to begin the process of conflict resolution as soon as it becomes evident.
EA also plays a role in this from an external perspective. Not all conflicts can be resolved through self-awareness and self-management alone. It almost always involves another party. A lack of clarity, ambiguity, differing values, opposing objectives, different workplace cultures and individual personality types are a seedbed for conflict.
The Psychology of Loss
The psychology behind conflict can be described as the fear of “loss”. A loss can have many forms. It can be the loss of stature, loss of financial interest, loss of influence or many other forms of loss. When there is a conflict, people fight in order to reduce their losses. They do so by trying to:
- Stop the real loss or the sense of loss.
- Lessen the impact of the loss.
- Get back what they feel was lost.
Identify Our Interests
I noted above that it is beneficial to resolve conflict early and at the lowest level possible. In order to resolve conflict at its lowest level, it is necessary to identify our own interests and the interests of all of those in the conflict situation. Try to determine, if you are angry, why you are angry. Try to establish what will be necessary to mitigate the anger and resolve the conflict. In other words:
- What is it that I really want?
- Why do I want it?
- Is it something that I really need in order to be fulfilled?
- What will happen if I don’t get what I want?
- What will happen if I do get what I want?
As you begin to answer these questions you will begin to uncover the potential outcomes and identify the impact upon yourself and your team based upon each of those potential outcomes. Be honest here. If you look at the situation objectively and if you try to see the conflict from the many facets it possesses, you will begin to see how various solutions will impact all parties. But, you must be very open and self-aware. And you must be able to maintain a high level of objectivity as you analyze the potential outcomes.
Good Conflict Resolution
So, what does good conflict resolution look like? The characteristics of a good resolution may include some or all of these characteristics:
- Any loss, real or imagined, or even a potential loss, is addressed by the leader.
- A“livable” decision is reached for all parties involved.
- The resolution accounts for each of the party’s interests.
- An acknowledgment that not every conflict has a “Win / Win” resolution.
Leaders, it is your job to operate in this environment in order to come to a successful resolution. It is incumbent upon you:
- To know what you want.
- To know what is best for the team or the organization.
- To pay close attention to any loss (real or perceived) when identified.
- To be flexible and creative in finding a solution.
- To make a commitment that you are willing to live up to whatever resolution is agreed upon by the parties.
Is There Conflict Where You Are?
Are you running from conflicts in your organization? If you are, that is not showing good leadership. Or, look at the flip side . . . Are you “itching for a fight”? If so, that is not showing good leadership either. Go back and look at Bennis’s quote from above.
You probably have several “opportunities” facing you right now.
I leave you with another great quote that I came across a while back. I think it sums up my point in this article fairly well. It comes from a guy who was very influential in some of my early leadership development. I observed him in some situations that tested him at a very young age as well. Here is what my friend says:
“Spending your days trying to avoid conflict is comparable to living in the ocean and trying to avoid getting wet. The task is impossible, and you just look silly.”
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