Navigating Conflict

Conflict.  It's a word that generally brings up negative emotions in people.  And while conflict is inevitable, many of us expend great energy at avoiding it.  However, this avoidance frequently perpetuates unnecessary tension and may even prevent productive solutions. 

In fact, I think Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Walter Lippmann summed it up best with his quote "Where all think alike, no one thinks very much." I firmly believe that those who embrace and lead conflict may create stronger and longer-lasting business relationships.

Yes, conflict is inevitable! Avoidance drags down productivity. Some research indicates exactly how costly it can be to an organization in financial terms. American workers spend 30% of their time dealing with conflict in the workplace. One third of your production day is at risk. Absenteeism, in many ways due to conflict at work, is up over 300% in the last 10 years. With less people at work, less gets done. And finally, how much turnover have you had in your organization? Is some of that due to unchecked conflict? Perhaps.

To help you more effectively deal with conflict, we'll devote some time to exploring sources of conflict, how to coach conflict and the three-steps for handling conflict well. If managed well, conflict can have positive long-term effects and result in creative problem-solving.  If not managed well, I'm sure you'd agree it can impair the connection you've worked so hard to establish in your relationships. 

I'll tease you with an unsourced anecdote that demonstrates the effect unmanaged conflict can have on a relationship. One of Lyndon B. Johnson's daughters was asked by a journalist to describe her relationship with her famous father.  After a moment's thought, she composed a reply: "Bloody." Legacies matter.

Before I jump into ideas on how to handle conflict, it is imperative that you understand the sources of conflict. If you know the source of the conflict, chances are the more equipped you will be with managing the conflict. In the business world, I believe sources of conflict can be divided into two categories:  organizational factors and people factors.

First, let's consider organizational factors. As conflict exists in all organizations, I'd safely bet that from the list below, you've experienced each one at different points in your career:

  • Lack of resources, lack of clarity (especially during change) and overregulation

  • Unhealthy competition, perceived or real injustice  and lack of alignment

  • Low interaction, differences in function, level and professional perspective

While the power to manage organizational conflict may be out of your control, the key is to focus on what can be controlled in the situation.  Also, remember that while the challenge may be internal, your goal should be to help resolve it before your clients feel the impact.

People factors are the sources of conflict that we generally have more influence over.  I  will break people factors into three categories.  The first, normal differences among people, has been well illustrated by a system William Marston developed in the 1920's. In general, most people are a combination of several styles, with strengths and challenges inherent in each one. The second area of people factors, perspectives and feelings, are emotion driven and generally occurs when a message is distorted or someone's selfishness impairs the relationship.  And third, interpersonal factors that span from lazy communications, power struggles to sender/receiver errors.  Managing interpersonal factors is where your efforts can directly impact whether a difference in styles escalates into full-blown conflict.  

Working through conflict situations

When it comes to human interaction, we are all very aware of the many natural differences among us.  We've often interacted with people and had natural connections or natural conflicts from the start.  These are called normal differences according William Marston, who in the 1920s developed a system for describing normal differences among people.

According to Marston's work, most of us are a combination of several styles. Despite human nature to think otherwise, it's important to remember that there is no right or wrong style.  It is also important to understand that there are strengths and challenges for each.

To identify which style you fall into, ask yourself the following questions: First, when faced with a decision are you more impulsive or are you slow and methodical? Secondly, when given a task, are you more
focused on the task at hand or are you more focused on relationship and people? From your responses, you will fall into one of four styles listed below.  I encourage you to understand where your clients fall within the four styles, and understand the strengths and weaknesses of each style. 

Powerhouses: If you are more impulsive and more task-oriented, you are a Powerhouse.  Powerhouses are results-oriented and all about the bottom line. 

Perfectionists: If are more methodical and more task-oriented you are a Perfectionist.  Perfectionists are slower, accurate, more analytical people. 

People People: If you are more methodical and more people-focused, you are the People People style.  The People People are very supportive, tactful and amiable. 

Persuaders: Finally, if you are people-focused and more impulsive, then you are a Persuader.  The Persuaders are high energy, optimistic and articulate people. 

Exploring each personality style

Understanding the personality styles and how to determine your style by evaluating your approach to both decision making and tasks is important. However, being able to identify someone's personality style is only the first part of managing the personality factors in conflict. To fully prepare you, we'll now review the traits of each style and how to manage each one in a conflict situation so you can effectively diffuse (vs. ignite) a potentially explosive situation.

Powerhouses:  This style is all about the bottom line.  When dealing with conflict with the Powerhouses it is important to be direct, but also respectful.

Perfectionists:  This style is focused on details and accuracy. In a conflict scenario with a Perfectionist, be more logical and diplomatic.

People People:  This style is relationship-focused, tactful and amiable.  When dealing with conflict with People People, stay slow and steady. 

Persuaders:  This style is energetic, optimistic and creative.  In conflict scenarios with Persuaders, focus on positive energy.

You should also be aware of the natural conflict situations that occur due to core personality types.  Typically, the highest conflict potential exists between the Powerhouse and People People styles, with the Persuaders and the Perfectionist styles also prone to discord.

Strengths and challenges of each type

We delved into insight on the traits of each personality style and how to manage them in a conflict situation.  While I hope you find that information helpful, I also should provided more background on the specific strengths and challenges of each personality type.  With greater insight on the specific strengths and challenges of each personality, not only will you better understand the proper approach with each, but be more likely to remember them during times of high stress.

Strengths:  Results oriented, competitive, loves a challenge.
Challenges:  Can be impatient, come off as abrasive or insensitive, autocratic tendencies, may compromise quality for speed.

Strengths:  Logical, quality conscious, analytical.
Challenges:  Can be seen as rigid, overly judgmental and critical of others.

People People
Strengths:  Cooperative, aware of others feelings, supportive, good listeners.
Challenges:  Can be slow to make decisions, may take things too personally, or be overly sensitive.

Strengths:  Persuasive, optimistic, flexible.
Challenges:  Can be impulsive, lack follow through and details, may overpromise.

I'll leave you with a word of caution as you apply these concepts within your practice:  Never forget the basic premise of "one-size does not fit all." Rather, apply these concepts as guides to help you better navigate the common personality traits we share, but at the end of the day it should be the individual within each client that determines your course.

Finally, consider this quote, "peace is not the absence of conflict, but the ability to cope with it."  I urge you to strengthen your coping mechanism by studying these basic concepts on personality and make them part of your approach with both team members and clients. 

Good luck managing and navigating your conflict — you may actually get back several hours of production a week. And, more importantly, it may make all the difference in your relationships and in your business.

Tony DiLeonardi