How to deal with conflict when you're the boss

Angry gesticulations

How do organisations respond to conflict without stifling genuine debate? I’ve been thinking about this recently as I’ve watched the public travails of the British Government as they negotiate Brexit. There are times when the party currently leading our country appears to be addicted to conflict, no matter the consequences. I saw broadly similar scenarios myself while working at Exec level as an independent consultant. Smart, talented people expending emotional energy on conflict instead of idea activation or getting stuff done. And let’s be clear about the effects of conflict – for most of us, it creates emotional drain, lowered resilience and a decrease in personal productivity. In extreme cases, it leads to withdrawal behaviours – lateness, increased sick days and job seeking. In fact, a shopping list of all the things we would like to reduce in the workplace. I am going to re-examine the traditional conflict framework and offer some strategies to senior leaders to help them better deal with conflict dynamics in their workplace.

Why does conflict occur?

If this sounds like a trite question, bear with me. It’s worth remembering that conflict is not a naturally occurring state but something that arises in certain situations. When you find yourself in a high conflict environment it can become self-perpetuating until everyone forgets how to engage in sensible, reasonable discourse. But it doesn’t have to be like this. Conflict needs a trigger. The trigger might be a small, identifiable thing e.g. misappropriation of resources. Or it might be a combination of small or large things that play on the emotional reserves of participants. Conflict is often triggered by a sense of overwhelm – an inability to address an important but complex issue. Or it can be triggered by a fear of failure – especially where the consequences of failure land hard on participants. I have seen resilience drop and conflict rise in situations where a challenging financial target is likely to be missed. These are not empty fears when missing financial targets leads to reputational loss, reduced personal rewards and at worst, withdrawal of investment finance and collapse of the business. Conflict is a physiological response to enhanced levels of stress.

There are ways to reduce it. You could ‘right the wrong’ – if there has been a clear misappropriation of resources, then as a senior leader, you can make restitution, see that justice is done and make the injured party whole. But how often is a misappropriation of resources this cut and dry? Usually, there are two sides to the argument or a power imbalance which complicates simple justice. You could also foster a collaborative and open environment creating mechanisms for people to vent in a healthy, transparent manner. Across a whole cohort, you might use PeopleDiligence’s Satisfaction and Motivation survey to identify areas for concern then address the concerns publicly to give your employees the sense that they are respected and heard. In a leadership team, you might ensure stronger meeting facilitation, identifying the managers with strong relationship skills and putting them in as chairs or facilitators of meetings vulnerable to flare-ups. Individuals with resilience red flags could be helped by HR teams to take a mental health day or work a shorter week until they are back on their feet[1]. Team days where individuals can participate in physical activities not related to work also really help to foster co-operation and lower stress levels.

But if all this fails to restore peace and you are still dealing with stressed out executives unable to make progress on thorny issues, try reappraising the situation using a conflict resolution framework.

A Framework for Conflict Resolution

Picture a meeting that you may have experienced with a high level of conflict. Raised voices, people going red in the face, exaggerated body language, maybe someone gathering their papers and walking out. The CEO lets it go for now but she’s really wondering whether her Head of Finance is a genuine asset. He hogs every conversation, projects anger in the face of disagreement and is intimidating to colleagues. On the other hand, the investors love him and his team is very loyal. If he goes, there’s a risk they’ll follow. She doesn’t know how to proceed.

There is a conflict framework which helps us to better understand participants in these situations. This framework explores participants’ co-operativeness mapped against their assertiveness. Co-operativeness is a measure of flexibility, empathy and willingness to listen to others. Assertiveness measures the extent and particularly the behaviour of an individual communicating their own needs.

Creating this as a matrix helps us to map participants in high conflict situations which gives us some context to better understand their behaviour. To put it another way, how many times have you found yourself in a stressful meeting where you’re silently saying: “Why is she doing that?”. Well the answer is probably that this is her personality archetype. She’s going to behave this way when put under pressure or dealing with conflict. Contextualising the behaviour instead of seeing it in the moment will help you to create strategies for dealing with it constructively. This model of conflict resolution is known as the dual concern model.

I like the premise of this model: economists tell us that rational agents will seek to optimise their self-interest. But behavioural scientists tell us that we often behave irrationally (e.g. suffer harm or loss) when showing concern or empathy towards an insider group (family, race, nationality etc;). I think this framework nicely demonstrates the interplay between these two competing drivers. But I’d like to redesign it a little. I want to use the matrix to expose the real world character archetypes that I have observed most frequently while working as a consultant. There are two things to say before we go any further: first, the point of the character archetypes is to give a helpful shorthand to identify risk areas in most conflict situations – it is not to map every conceivable human being into a psychological profile. There may be sub-profiles or overlapping profiles. So it’s not perfect but it’s helpful - call it a heuristic. The second point is that behaviour is not fixed. Individuals may fit predominantly into one box - but with coaching, personal development, decreased stress levels, they may move along each axis.

Remember I asked you to picture a meeting with high levels of conflict? Now picture that meeting again and see if you can place the participants into one of the segments on the framework shown below. There will be some who you can’t quite place – that’s OK, leave them for now. But I bet that you were instantly able to map the Competers, the Escalaters and the Compromisers? This is because most senior managers fall into one of these three categories.

There isn’t a right or wrong segment here. Collaborators are best at achieving outcomes without causing untoward stress in the wider group, but it doesn’t mean they always win. Accommodators may give in more easily but they do it for an easy life and maybe they’re onto something there? Competers match our popular conception of the strong leader, especially in Western cultures, but there are surprisingly few examples of pure Competer type statesmen leading democracies. I suspect this is because Parliamentary style democracies would cease to function without any form of co-operation between parties. The purpose of this analysis is not to name and shame personality types but to invite senior leaders to step back, review the landscape and adjust their strategies accordingly. In the final section of this report, I suggest some strategies on how to respond to each of the different character archetypes. Awkward personalities can be difficult to manage but at PeopleDiligence, we give you tools to zone out personality characteristics and look at the true competencies of your employees. We understand how easy it is to anchor to difficult personal interactions that might make you give up with an employee but we believe that even awkward people can be real assets to a business. In fact, sometimes it’s your brilliant misfits who save the day.

PeopleDiligence gives you the tools to help you make better human capital decisions. We let you look into the kaleidoscope and shift it a degree to turn an awkward shape into something beautiful. We help you deploy your brilliant misfits in the right roles and we keep helping you reshape, re-appraise and redesign your human capital base as you grow. We offer three tools: TeamAudit (employee competencies), MBase (manager competencies) and SAM, our Satisfaction and Motivation survey. Our products are low risk and low cost. We don’t give you the answers but we give you the tools to ask better questions. We grow with you supporting you with data at every stage of your journey.

You can read a full copy of this article including strategies for dealing with the character archetypes by going to our Members Area

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