How To Constructively Resolve Conflict

h13y8vyixnu-jay-ruzeskyCreativity comes from a conflict of ideas.

Quote attributed to: Donatella Versace

Unfortunately in the practice of economic development conflict is inevitable. Addressing it is part of the job. Unfortunately, conflict makes many economic development professionals feel uncomfortable and (as a result) it is too often avoided. But, avoiding the problem doesn’t resolve it. In fact, it often makes the situation worse. Conflict doesn’t necessarily need to be divisive. If conflict is handled properly the process can result in an even stronger solution and can help foster mutual respect.

One of the tools I was exposed to in my career is the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument [hot link to]. The tool is a forced choice survey that assesses an individual’s concern for people versus concern for the task. In my opinion, the most valuable aspect of the work is the classification of conflict into 5 categories. This model helps you better understand that not all conflict is identical and better prepares you to find a success resolution by adjusting your approach to align with the category.

5 Conflict Management Strategies

Competing – “Might Makes Right”. This is the classic power oriented conflict. Each person pursues his or her own concerns at the other’s expense. They use whatever power necessary to win. People will argue, withhold resources, ignore calls, etc.. Competing might look like standing up for your rights, defending a position you feel is correct, or simply refusing to be the person who loses.

This approach is good for when quick decisions are required (e.g. an emergency), when the decision is going to be unpopular (e.g. cost cutting), or when the issue is vital to your community’s welfare and you know you are right.

Accommodating – “Kill Your Enemies With Kindness”. This is the opposite of competing. An individual neglects his or her own concerns to satisfy the concerns of the other person (or group). Think of it as the self-sacrificing or martyr mode. Accommodating might take the form of selfless generosity, obeying without question even if the person would rather not, or constantly yielding to the other person’s point of view.

This approach is good when you realize you are wrong, when the issue is clearly more important to the other person and you want to create goodwill, when harmony is considered of paramount importance, or when it is clear you are going to lose (e.g. your Board is intransient).

Avoiding – “Leave Well Enough Alone”. This is an unassertive and uncooperative approach to conflict. When avoiding, a person doesn’t share what his or her concerns are up-front. He or she does not address the conflict. The person might diplomatically side step the issue, postpone engagement, or even withdraw from the situation.

This approach makes sense when other issues are more pressing or important, when you perceive there is no chance of having your concerns addressed, when the cost of conflict outweighs the benefits (e.g. responding to a negative editorial), when you want to provide people time to calm down, or when others can resolve the conflict more effectively (e.g. escalating a decision to your Board).

Collaborating – “Two Heads Are Better Than One”. This is the opposite of avoiding. When collaborating, the individual works with the other person to find a win:win solution. It involves framing the issue so it can be solved, understanding the concerns or constraints each other face, and seeking a solution that addresses both sets of concerns.

This approach is best when the concerns of both parties are too important to be compromised, when both parties bring unique insights to the problem, when genuine commitment is needed to facilitate implementation of the solution, or when it is important to build a stronger interpersonal relationship.

Compromising – “Split The Difference”. The objective is to find an expedient and mutually acceptable solution that partially satisfies both parties. This is a middle ground approach between competing and accommodating. It typically means each party loses something in order to move forward.

This approach makes sense when both parties are deeply passionate about their respective positions, when speed of a decision is important, or when you’ve tried either collaboration or competition and it failed.

Tips For Effective Conflict Resolution

Determine issue importance – Is it really important for you to win the conflict, or are you simply arguing because you have an uncontrollable need to be right? Every conflict is important to resolve; but not every conflict is important to win. Assess the impact of going along with the other person’s point-of-view. If it doesn’t jeopardize success, seriously consider giving in. Point-in-fact, the cost of conflict on the relationship may not be worth the difference in outcome.

Minimize Emotions – Don’t try to resolve a conflict when people are angry. Take a time out and agree to regroup the next day.

Define the Conflict – Everybody needs to be on the same page with respect to the problem definition. A problem well stated is half solved. TQM uses a Problem Definition Sheet [hot link to] that you may find helpful.

Describe What Caused The Conflict – Understand the sequence of events to help find the root causes.

Describe The Feelings Raised By The Conflict – Honesty is critical and feelings do not have to be rational or justified, they simply are what they are.

Listen Carefully – Be respectful and don’t interrupt when the other person is sharing. Focus on understanding their point of view.

Brainstorm Solutions – Typically, there are many ways to a successful outcome, your way is not the only one. Be open to new ideas. Be willing to compromise and negotiate if required. Stay focused on a positive outcome and remain aware of the common goal.

Try The Solution – Really commit to the Action Plan and do not directly or indirectly sabotage implementation. Be patient!

If The Solution Doesn’t Work, Try Another – Document both your results and learning. Then, brainstorm new solutions based on the new input. It is a game of continual improvement.

When To Punt?

In handling conflict, it is important to recognize your limitations as both a participant and a mediator. Not every conflict can be resolved at a team level. If you reach a stalemate, then it is time to step back and request help. If you don’t seek help, the problem can quickly get worse and derail the work.

Ideally, a decision escalation process has been defined up front and you can simply agree to disagree and bump the conflict up to the next level of management in your organization (or team leadership structure). But, in my experience, most partnerships (or teams) assume a collaborative approach and never bother to define when a conflict should be escalated for resolution.

In my experience, if you have given conflict resolution a fair shot and the lack of a solution is jeopardizing milestone delivery then it is time to seek help. The choice you have is to punt the conflict to your management or to hire an outside mediator (often a consultant) to provide a neutral perspective. In either case, the conflict needs to be clearly described and the attempts to find a solution well documented. The actual process for mediation should be agreed to so there is buy-in to the final decision. In economic development, unresolved conflicts are often complex and collaborations involve multiple organizations. There is nothing wrong with having management help in resolving issues. But, there is a lot wrong with letting a conflict remain unresolved and putting the work at risk.

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