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CEO Best Practice: Conflict Management

Executive Tools

  • Executive Summary
  • Self Assessment Checklist

Expert Practices Articles

  • Conflict Management: An Overview
  • The CEO and Executive Teamwork
  • Organizational Conflict
  • Conflict Resolution Strategies
  • Employees and Conflict
  • Mediation of Conflicts

Case Histories

  • Go to the Source of the Problem
  • Take a Step Back to Examine Your Point of View
  • Move Toward the Tension
  • Offer Conflict Resolution Training
  • Reflect on Your Personal Approach to Conflict
  • Use the "POPS" Process to Resolve Intense Conflicts

Tools & Analysis

  • Training Tool: How Conflict Competent is Your Organization?

Request the Entire Best Practice Module: Conflict Management

Conflict Management: An Overview

"Conflict should occur in organizations," Harvey says. "The presence of conflict is actually a sign of an effective business. Whenever there's a free flow of ideas, creativity and activity, people are going to butt heads. If no conflict exists, something is wrong."

Some common myths about conflict:

  1. Just ignore it, and it will go away. Not so, according to the TEC experts. Says Jellison: "Occasionally, minor issues dissipate of their own accord. But larger tensions demand attention and constructive action."
  2. Winners and losers. Too often, people involved in conflict regard them as "battles" in which one side must win and one side must lose. Workplace conflict doesn't follow this axiom, Harvey says. "In most cases, organizational conflict can lead to a variety of outcomes, where each side takes something away. Compromise is essential. But it's only possible with a solid foundation of good will and mutual respect."
  3. Every conflict is resolvable. Maybe in an ideal universe, people can find a happy solution to every problem. The hard truth is, there are times when individuals (or factions or departments) are simply unable to arrive at an agreement. The next step is determining a way to live with disagreement.

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The CEO and Executive Teamwork

"The CEO's role is to acknowledge that he or she is the one who sets the tone for cooperation, rather than conflict," Jellison says. "When the CEO sees conflict coming, especially at the executive level, it's time to clearly state that hostility and other negative manifestations of conflict aren't acceptable."

Tell stories of positive teamwork, he advises business leaders. Describe situations where conflict has been addressed and neutralized or, better yet, where team members working together generated creative and cost-efficient solutions to company issues.

What are your company's most pressing issues? Says Harvey: "That's where you want your executive team focused and working in a collaborative way. Make sure that team members genuinely understand and respond to your strategic vision -- positively or negatively, as long as they're focused where you want them to be."

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Organizational Conflict

Left unchecked, interpersonal and/or interdepartmental disputes can last for months or years. Dispirited employees abandon ship. Those who stay concentrate on protecting themselves from the fallout of conflict; little time or energy is devoted to the company's mission or goals.

Healthy organizations, on the other hand, pay attention to these factors and correct them as soon as possible, Jellison says. "The best strategy is to address conflict as soon as it appears," he says. "Pretending it will go away is not a viable solution."

Other helpful conflict management tips:

  • Keep it in the open. Don't resort to secrecy; it only breeds further discontent and alienation.
  • Be flexible. "All organizations have rules and policies in place to govern employee behavior," Harvey says. "But don't expect these rules to influence every situation that comes up. In a culture of cooperation and compromise, solutions will more likely present themselves."
  • Encourage responsibility. At every level of the organization, promote the importance of raising concerns and addressing them as early as possible. Otherwise, employees fearing corporate retaliation will only "go underground" with their issues, where they fester and grow out of all proportion.

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Conflict Resolution Strategies

Aside from avoidance (the most common approach to dealing with conflict), more effective resolution strategies include:

  • Accommodation. This approach values giving in as a way of preserving office harmony. For minor issues or conflicts where one of the people involved knows they are clearly in the wrong, this might work. In general, however, accommodation equals appeasement - surrendering values and principles for the dubious goal of temporary harmony.
  • Compromise. For this strategy to work, disputing parties must be willing to cooperate and trade concessions. The use of mediation often complements this approach.
  • Competition. With this strategy, one side must win and the other side must lose. For obvious reasons, it has limited effectiveness, since it always leaves one person (the "loser") with pent-up anger that will likely lead to further conflict.
  • Collaboration. Each side makes a commitment to finding a mutually acceptable resolution. Understanding that conflict is a natural part of life, this approach recognizes that new opportunities arise when disputing parties work together towards a common goal.

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Employees and Conflict

Unfortunately, some organizations approach disagreements among staff by discouraging open expression of differences. Both TEC experts say this tactic rarely works in the short-run, and never as a long-term strategy.

Some tips toward converting negative conflict to positive outcomes:

  • Guide the discussion. Sometimes it's a matter of "spin." The manager can bring conflicting parties together in an atmosphere that focuses on possible solutions to the existing problem (rather than the negative conditions leading to the dispute) and ideas about how to put these solutions to work.
  • Don't take sides. When entering the arena of conflict, the manager must be seen to trying to understand both positions. "Listen to each side and respect the validity of the opinions stated," Jellison says. "Withhold judgement until all the available information has been given."

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Mediation of Conflicts

Of course, success in mediation depends on each party's willingness to deal directly with each other. Among the circumstances where it may prove most helpful are:

  • Employee disputes. Mediation provides a controlled setting where quarreling employees can air their differences and, with the mediator's help, communicate more effectively with each other.
  • Declining performance. If a problem arises between a manager and an employee, mediation offers a "safe space" where the employee feels comfortable expressing his or her concerns, as well as what's needed to improve the situation from their perspective. The same goes for the manager who can use the setting to clarify circumstances the individual may be unaware of. Whatever the situation, when manager and employee craft a solution together, they're more likely to adhere to it in the future.
  • Sexual harassment complaints. This is an area where mediation can offset costly and unpleasant litigation. Sometimes sexual harassment occurs as a result of differing perceptions about humorous anecdotes and/or one person's inability to respect another. If the people involved are willing to talk things over, the complaint can be mediated in a way that ends the problem and leaves everyone satisfied.

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