Working relationally – managing conflict well

This is the second short blog in a series that looks at three specific, practical ways in which we can each strengthen our working relationships during this time of isolation and home-working. Today we’ll look at how we manage conflict.

During a recent Webinar on strengthening relationships, we asked participants why we fail to tackle conflict in our workplaces in fruitful, constructive ways. The most common reason given was that we simply fail to tackle conflict for too long. We avoid conflict.

This is a serious problem. Patrick Lencioni highlights the central importance of good conflict in all effective teams. He goes further and says that a hallmark of high performing teams is that they intentionally ‘mine for conflict’. They go looking for conflict. They manage conflict with skill – to fuel creativity, strengthen ideas and plans, build commitment, strengthen relationships and trust.

5 years ago Satya Nadella took over as Microsoft’s CEO. Under Steve Ballmer the corporate culture was commonly described as cut-throat and conflict-ridden – but a kind of conflict that was destructive to relationships, productivity, agility and creativity. The first thing Nadella asked his top executives to do, was to read Marshall Rosenberg’s book ‘Non-violent Communication’. This book outlines the principles of peaceful conflict resolution. Nadella recommended it to his leadership team, symbolically differentiating his expectations from that of his predecessors. Since then Microsoft’s culture has changed radically in just a few years from conflict heavy and cut-throat to creative and collaborative. Life alienating forms of communication – moralistic judgements, comparisons, making demands, denying of responsibility – are on the wane. Nadella puts much of this change down to this book. 

Non-violent communication proposes 4 steps that we need to reflect on when tackling conflict with another colleague. First, making observations of what happened focusing on specific facts and data, free of any evaluation or judgment. Second, describing our feelings in response to what happened. Third, highlighting the underlying needs that gave rise to this feeling. Fourth, making requests, a specific action that would help to address the underlying need. This might come together in, for example the following statement: “I notice that you haven’t spoken during the Zoom call (observation), I’m feeling uncomfortable and concerned (feeling), because your views and opinions are essential to progressing the project (need). Therefore, could we find another way to get your input (request)?”

I spent a few years as a management consultant at McKinsey. Before being let loose on unsuspecting clients, I completed a week long intensive training program. Along with some very helpful problem-solving techniques we were all taught how to give and receive feedback. The feedback model followed a very similar approach to non-violent communication. Focus on observable facts. Describe how I’m feeling about this. Pause to give space for your colleague to ask questions and understand. Explore options that lead to a better outcome. Isn’t it interesting that McKinsey places such a high priority on teaching their consultants how to manage conflict in creative and generative ways?

We may struggle with conflict. The good news is that we can all learn how to manage conflict better. Mindset, technique and practice are key. Whilst remote-working, here are ? exercises that we can start practicing today, in our ‘conflict management gym’.

  1. Don’t avoid conflict. Don’t use the inability to meet in person as excuse either. Deferring the conversation should only be a very last resort. Many organisations have had to find ways to manage conflict remotely, including many tech companies that rely on remote-working, companies with global supply chains, international organisations with offices around the world, and crisis response agencies whose staff are working in inaccessible locations.
  2. Remember conflict is healthy and normal. We want to manage, not eliminate, conflict. The goal is to ensure conflict is constructive and fruitful, and strengthens relationships. Make sure that good relationships are always the first priority.
  3. Choose to think the best or people. Encourage Employees to Assume Positive Intent. Remember that the most common issues that lead to conflict relate to the perceptions we carry. Keep people and problems separate.
  4. Use conflict management tools. Apply non-violent communication and feedback models (as outlined above) extensively to resolve issues early.
  5. Prepare well for conversations where conflict is likely. Think what you are going to say and what the pitfalls are. Step into the shoes of your colleagues and see things from their perspective. Know how you will respond and plan accordingly.
  6. Listen ‘actively’. Listen to understand and see things from the standpoint of your colleagues. Listen, ask, explore, reflect, summarise.
  7. Mine for emotions and feelings, disagreements, dissenting voices – and follow up. Train yourself to look for behavioural change and emotions of colleagues. Don’t downplay minor problems. Employees might think they’re taking a responsible stance by downplaying an issue, but they’re actually setting the stage for more problems and challenges down the road. Staying quiet to keep the peace can actually downplay and normalise the other person’s behaviours.
  8. Attend to the most common issues that cause conflict in remote teams. Most of these communication conflicts are caused by employee perception. Remote-working experts say that the following are 4 common factors that lead to conflict in the remote workplace: misaligned goals, priorities, and expectations; feeling that one or more colleagues aren’t pulling their weight; miscommunication or complete lack of communication; not knowing one’s place and role on the team.
  9. Set Up regular ‘engagement opportunities’ with colleagues. Involving remote employees is a great way to build communication and foster a group mentality and shared purpose. Virtual leaders must intentionally create opportunities for people to interact, and build relational capital. Even if the weekly updates take less than 15 minutes, giving your remote team space to ask questions and learn can make them feel included.
  10. If things get heated, ensure you have a clear process and support in place for handling those situations where conflict escalates.

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