Conflict is never pretty.  Confronting conflict is rarely easy.  But leaving it alone can cause greater difficulties in the future.  Today, a colleague told me about a mishap of a growing company – on the brink of receiving £500,000 investment from a VC! Unfortunately, unresolved issues between the directors lead to a conflict that has ruined their business – and probably their relationships too.  As a result, not only did they lose the money, but are now looking at legal processes (and costs!) to salvage what they can for themselves from the business.  Its not pretty – and its not a productive use of energy.

Yet time and again, conflicts are left in the closet only to emerge at the most crucial stages.  Its happened to us all: whether it be at home, in relationships or with our colleagues.  We ignore, deny or sometimes are just oblivious to destructive dynamics that are affecting our lives.

Personally, this can lead to ill-feelings – at worst depression – and a breakdown in trust and, sometimes, lost relationships.  At work, the same can be true, but it can also lead to a loss in productivity and dynamism from the employees (and employers!)  No one likes these things.  And loss is a part of life.

Yet we can take steps either to mitigate loss OR to discover new opportunities to prevent unnecessary costs.  This itself can take energy, but most of that is overcoming the fear of being hurt, upsetting the status quo or of hurting someone else.  (See future blog “Roles” or contact me for ways to manage this.)

But more than energy, working with conflict takes awareness.

Management Structure

A typical hurdle to addressing conflicts is choosing to take responsibility for noticing them and then acting on them.  A subtle way this can be avoided lies not with  the individual, but within the management structure itself.

Ground staff take it for granted that it is the manager’s or HR’s job to sort out conflicts (apply what euphemism you like here.)  In their efforts to be “good” managers, managers in turn, do not trouble their staff with “inconvenient” matters of conflict – “Best leave them to get on with their jobs.”

“It is always with the best intentions that the worst work is done.” – Oscar Wilde.

Such sentiments can lead to nobody taking responsibility for sorting out the conflict.  While nobody likes unnecessary meetings or being singled out, truth is: conflicts are never convenient. Unfortunately, without including the staff, managers rarely have the necessary information to work constructively with issues arising in the workplace.  Unless managers recognise this, a number of things can happen:

  1. The issues remain enigmatic and therefore un-actionable.  It follows easily from here that the problematic issues end up back in the closet.
  2. As the issues are not in the manager’s primary awareness (or field of vision), they take a back seat and inevitably end up back in the closet.
  3. Managers pro-actively and creatively work with the information they have to discover as much as they can about the issues.  From here, they can plan interventions or make minor changes that will support a constructive change in addressing the problems.

Now you are going to tell me that you always do the third option and the first two are simply bad management?

But go back and look at the structure of your organisation.

  • How many times do good intentions remain undone?
  • How many times do you take the “convenient” option?
  • Do you have the time or the tools to do the third option?

If you are lucky enough to answer yes to the final question – Great! If not there are a number of things you can do:

  1. Find out why you don’t have the time and resources given the potential cost of unresolved conflicts.
  2. Gather more information about the current state of the work place.  This does not have to involve the staff.  Astute and creative managers can identify a lot of signals that provide information on the situation without anybody being address directly.  But direct feedback is also invaluable. (TwoWayVision do a great anonymous on-line survey that can support you with this.)
  3. Ask some staff to set up a committee to look at the issues from their perspective.  This could include groups that are at the same level of employment or it could be mixed, ie. with a senior manager, manager and support staff talking together.  This could also overcome biases within the organisation as well as providing an opportunity for shared learning. This, in turn, can provide a platform to work constructively with the conflict.

The best way to avoid recreating destructive dynamics is to hire an outside party.  The downside of using this strategy is that a third-party will never know the organisation as well as those who work there.  Nor do they have the same investment in the company.  Plus they cost additional time and money.  However, they can also bring a different and, hopefully, fresh perspective to the situation.

Managing conflict is rarely fun. It so easily gets left alone.  Yet this rarely works.  Greater awareness is one of the key tools to working constructively with conflict.  This applies at both an individual level, and at an organisational level.

Remember, conflict is not always about personality, its about structure too.  With this in mind, it becomes a little easier to step up to the challenge of confronting conflict.