Transferring Conflict Management Skills in Your Organization
October 10, 2005
Few trainers need to be reminded of the destructive potential of mismanaged organizational conflict. Conflict, however, has another side—one that is often overlooked. Remember the old ad featuring near-mythic muscleman Charles Atlas? He built quite a physique through "dynamic tension"-putting muscle against muscle. In the same way, the dynamic tension that results when executives go head to head can be a source of great creativity, excitement, and even strength. It can help an organization develop the muscle it needs to vanquish less well-endowed competitors.
Whether conflict works for or against an organization, shores it up or undermines its foundation, depends on how well it is managed. And, here, trainers should play a key role.
Managing Conflict Requires Special Skills
When you boil it down, conflict is the condition in which the needs or desires of two or more parties appear to be incompatible. This does not mean that resolving conflict requires the needs of each party to be met equally. After all, all needs are not created equal or may not be equally felt. Often, one person has a need to be met or a concern to be answered, while the other has a less pressing agenda or, initially, no agenda at all. In other instances, all involved parties may be equally committed to getting their way.
Trainers beware: In each case, different skill sets are called for. Consider the three distinct conflict situations and the array of skills each requires:
- When another's needs are pressing . . . the individual needs active listening skills.
- When the individuals own needs are pressing . . . he or she needs assertion skills.
- When both peoples needs are pressing . . . they each need conflict management skills.
Active listening and its components attending behavior, passive listening, say more responses, paraphrasing, decoding and feeding back feelings have been around for decades, so there is no need for us to spend time here.
Likewise, most trainers use a number of tried-and-true techniques for helping managers "dial up"—go from nonassertive to assertive or—"dial down"--replace aggressive behavior with non-threatening assertiveness.
Conflict management skills needed to confront those Maalox moments, in which the needs of both parties are pressing, are less often included in the repertoire of trainers skills.
What Skills Should Trainers Focus On?
Consider these three situations:
- The VP of Marketing for North America wants to introduce new packaging for a pharmaceutical product. Making the change worldwide would result in large savings and make it easier to sell his idea to upper management, but his counterpart in Europe isn't buying in.
- The head of finance has developed a new format for monthly reports, which he wants all departments to follow. "No way," says the sales director."I prefer the old format."
- Two executives share the services of an administrative assistant, and each wants 75 percent of the person's time. Too bad she doesn't have a twin.
- In each of these situations, two people have needs that are in opposition, and each is determined to prevail. This is a powder keg waiting to be ignited, and defusing it will require the full range of conflict management skills.
When you stop to think about it, there are really only four options available for dealing with such conflict situations:
- Play the victim: say nothing, act powerless, and complain
- Leave: physically remove oneself from involvement
- Change oneself: move off one's position; shift ones view of the other party; "let it go"
- Confront: address the issue openly, candidly, and objectively; communicate with the other party
Option one is never viable. Playing the victim generally exacerbates a situation by sweeping conflict under the carpet. It causes hard feeling and delays the inevitable. The second option is often unavailable. Besides, conflict is a given and its better to deal with it here and now. Self-change is fine, but don't count on too many employees doing it. The question is: What price are they willing to pay?
This leaves steering employees toward the fourth option: Confronting. When properly done, confronting issues head-on is the most effective way to resolve issues without igniting thermonuclear war. Before sending warring parties out into a potential slugfest, trainers need to equip them with what we call "The Four Cs" Strategy for Confronting."
The Four Cs for Confronting
There are "Four Cs" that make up a Confronting strategy. Each of them is a desired behavior that requires a specific skill set:
1.CONNECTING entails establishing a rapport with the other party by (a) addressing the issue between you openly and candidly and (b) asserting yourself.
It is important to stress to your colleagues that before attempting to connect with another person to establish a rapport that is conducive to discussing your mutual needs they should always check with the person to determine the best time and place to have their discussion. And they shouldn't forget "attending behavior": They need to make sure they have privacy, will not be interrupted, are in a neutral, non-threatening environment, have scheduled enough time to cover all the salient points, and that both parties have had enough time to prepare for their meeting.
Finding the right words to begin a potentially adversarial discussion can be difficult. You might suggest the use of "Partnering Phrases," which convey the idea that a person is ready to address the issue candidly and objectively and is serious about resolving it. For example:
- "I have some concerns about the way we are making decisions that I'd like to explore with you."
- "I have an issue with your attendance, and we can't afford to let this go unresolved."
- "We seem to have some fundamental differences about how to market the new product, and I'd like to address these with you."
- "I am having some difficulties with the way you are managing the IT project. They're really going to get in the way if we don't deal with them. "
- "Im uncomfortable with your approach to performance reviews, and I want to work my concerns out with you."
2.CLARIFYING involves seeking to understand by (a) Active Listening and (b) exploring all points of view.
Clarifying is a critical step in conflict management. Until both parties are clear about one another's issue, it is impossible to negotiate, or Contract, a mutually satisfying agreement. Suggest to your colleagues that they use Active Listening skills to encourage the other party to open up about the real issues he or she has. Assertion skills will also help them describe the behaviors they are concerned about and the reasons they find them troubling.Once again, choosing the right words is crucial. Suggest that they try Clarifying phrases similar to these:
- "Let's take a minute to clarify what we hear each other saying about the way we've been making decisions."
- "It's important for me to understand where you're coming from. What do I need to know to understand what's been happening with your attendance? "
- "Let's define our key concerns regarding marketing the new product. How about you expressing your concerns first, since they are important for me to understand."
- "Regarding the IT project, what feedback do you have for me about anything I've been doing to contribute to the situation?"
- "I want to know what you think. What is your point of view on performance reviews?"
3.CONFIRMING entails reaching mutual agreement as to what each party wants and needs and establishing your willingness to collaborate.
Confirming entails summing up the facts: restating the issues to ensure that nothing has been misunderstood or omitted during the discussion. Equally important is a summary of the emotional progress that has been made: the commitment that each person has made to find a mutually agreeable solution. At this point both parties are usually eager to move to action, so you may need to convince them that investing a few additional minutes in Confirming will make the next step much easier.
Here are Confirming statements that executives have found useful:
- "Is there anything we missed that needs to be discussed regarding the marketing strategy?"
- "Here's my understanding of our differences and where we are right now on the issue of the IT project."
- "Do you have any other concerns about our performance reviews?"
- "I really appreciate your willingness to work through this issue with me."
- "I'm optimistic that we can find a win-win solution here."
4. CONTRACTING is the process of negotiating agreements for future interaction.
Contracting is the final stage in managing conflict by confronting. It entails finding the win-win solution that both parties have committed to.
At this point, one of the most effective tools available to executives is the combination of two skills commonly taught in assertiveness training: a "Three-Part 'I' Response" (When you _______, I feel _______, because _______.) and "Straight Talk" (I want/need _______ because _______.)
Let's take the example of two IT executives responsible for the rollout of an ERP system. In the past two weeks, Deborah, the project manager, has authorized overtime to keep the project on schedule. Sam, her boss, has just learned about this from another manager. Sam's combination Three-Part I Response and Straight Talk might sound something like this:
"Deborah, when you authorize overtime without telling me, you put me in a difficult situation. I'm the one who's responsible for staying on budget, and if there are any cost overruns I'm the one who'll have to explain them. From now on, I need you to come to me before authorizing any overtime on the ERP rollout."
At this point, Deborah is likely to retort with an explanation of her behavior, such as: "You were away for the weekend; you said you couldn't be reached; and I had to make the call. I figured because you didn't give me your phone number, you didn't want me to bother you. If you want to make the decisions, I have to be able to get in touch with you."
Touché! Now Deborah is the one asserting herself, making it clear that she, too, has needs. The negotiation will now proceed, back and forth, until both Sam's and Deborah's needs are met. If Sam isn't willing to give up his privacy by leaving a phone number, maybe he'll agree to call Deborah for a daily update the next time he goes away. Or he may decide to give Deborah more leeway, arranging for her to authorize overtime up to a certain number of hours without his approval.
Some useful Contracting phrases are:
- I think the whole team needs to be involved in budget decisions. What do you think?
- Having you work four 10-hour days doesn't work for me, but having you come in at 10 a.m. and work until 6 p.m. would. Would that work for you?
- Let's plan some practical next steps to develop the marketing plan together. What would you prefer that I do differently in the future regarding the way I conduct my performance reviews?
The Importance of Conflict Management Skills
As Pat Parenty, senior VP and general manager of Redken, U.S.A., points out, "Expecting people to resolve their differences without giving them conflict management skills is like giving a computer to someone who's never seen one before and saying, 'Have fun using this.'" Yet, conflict-resolution skills aren't part of any high school, college, or business school curriculum that were familiar with. Trainers can come to the rescue. By imparting the skills required to achieve the Four Cs, trainers can help change the way their organization manages conflict: transforming it from a destructive element into a positive force for business results.