Book Image

The Manager's Guide to Mediating Conflict

By : Alison J Love
Book Image

The Manager's Guide to Mediating Conflict

By: Alison J Love

Overview of this book

Table of Contents (10 chapters)

Good versus bad conflict


Bringing different perspectives and different points of view together should be a positive thing, and it should help promote creativity and innovation. So while we tend to think of conflict in negative terms, it can be a force for good. If conflict is managed positively or the culture is such that it promotes a healthy exchange of viewpoints, this promotes understanding and allows individuals to express opinions in a constructive way that achieves collaboration and engagement; all of which is positive. Patrick Lencioni, in his book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, lists the fear of conflict as one of the five dysfunctions of a team and that teams who develop the ability to engage in healthy conflict and open debate will move towards high performance. Indeed it could be argued that a fear of conflict and reluctance to challenge may well have contributed to some of the dramatic corporate scandals of recent history, such as Enron, Goldman Sachs, and HBOS.

Lencioni suggests that teams that fear conflict will tend to have boring meetings, engage in personal attacks and power politics, ignore controversial topics, fail to tap into all opinions, and waste time and energy with posturing and interpersonal risk management. I am sure we can all relate to this and have witnessed this to varying degrees. A team that engages in conflict positively will in contrast have lively and interesting meetings, exploit ideas from all, solve problems quickly, minimize politics, and put critical topics on the table for discussion (rather than avoid them).

A manager's style of leadership will have a big influence on whether a team can engage in healthy conflict. If a manager leads by example, they themselves encourage open debate and manage conflict in a positive way; this will influence others to do likewise. Also, in a team or culture where there is healthy conflict, the individuals will be empowered to take responsibility to resolve issues between themselves. Lencioni suggests that team members should have the confidence to identify buried disagreements and encourage the team to resolve them. Understanding others' typical responses to conflict can also help here. Ideally the manager should not be called on or be required to intervene in every issue; if the parties can resolve matters themselves then they should be given the opportunity to do so. It is only where this is not possible or successful that the manager will need to take action. The trick is of course to identify when this is necessary. To put yourself into a position where you can spot when this is required, it is necessary to take the time and effort to really know and understand those who work with you and be alert to differences in behaviors, communications, relationships, and engagement.

Problems arise when the culture does not encourage healthy conflict, conflict is not managed positively, or it remains unresolved for long periods of time. In these situations conflict becomes damaging; in turn, this creates a relational crisis that destabilizes people. As a result, people act and react in ways that produce unproductive and destructive dynamics.

Unfortunately, conflict remains unresolved or is simply avoided in far too many situations; it is estimated that 60 percent of line managers tend to avoid conflict rather than seek to tackle and resolve it (CIPD Leadership and Management of Conflict Survey 2008). As we all know from our own personal experiences, ignoring or avoiding conflict does not produce a positive result; rather, it worsens the situation. Resentments fester, communication diminishes, and individuals begin to get stuck in the conflict situation so that the need for some third-party intervention (such as mediation) increases.

Conflict, then, can be both productive and harmful. Some of the ways in which conflict can have a positive effect are as follows:

  • Innovation: A workplace where people are able to discuss, argue, and take different positions is essential if you are looking to cultivate a work environment where new ideas are encouraged and even required.

  • Creativity: Similarly, creativity is something that is developed through interaction and, indeed, friendly conflict with others. To think creatively, you sometimes need a sounding board, even if it is a dissenting voice!

  • Engagement: Conflict, in its proper place, actually correlates with the engagement of employees. Indeed, good conflict is a symptom rather than a cause of engagement, but it indicates that employees feel empowered and committed enough to their roles to feel passionately about and stimulated by their tasks.

  • Personal development: Good conflict is also an essential part of one's personal development. While the phrase "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger" may or may not be true, in this case, good conflict is intrinsic to personal development in the sense that it is indicative of the fact that you are offering a fresh perspective, that you are actively contributing to something, or having an effect on the way things are done.

Of course, there is always another side to this, and often it is the inverse that leads to bad conflict. So, bad conflict could be the result of a lack of innovation in a workplace. If there is no sense of progression, or a desire to improve, this will lead to frustration and even stress, which, in turn, leads to bad conflict. One might consider conflict as being buried within any situation; think for example, of a good friendship—the best friendships often feature some kind of antagonism or conflict which make them interesting and stimulating. The problem happens when this conflict or what might be called productive antagonism becomes stifled. It's then redirected, producing frustration, irritation, and as I will now explore, stress.