One of the most valuable skills any manager at any level can have is the ability to handle conflict effectively. It’s crucial. As anyone who’s managed a day or more likely knows, conflict abounds in the workplace. It can be about anything: budgets, personalities, competition for limited resources, competition with other leaders. It can be with those above you or below you. Often it simply involves, for whatever reasons, human beings just not getting along with each other.
One thing I did learn in my management days: The ability to resolve conflict quickly, diplomatically and effectively is the hallmark of a successful executive. If not resolved (or not resolved satisfactorily), conflicts fester. They become lingering distractions, ongoing problems, drains on productivity. I’d go so far as to say that how you manage conflict can make or break your leadership career.
Since the causes of conflicts are so variable, it’s hard to concisely summarize how they’re usually resolved, except to say that good leaders exercise diplomacy, collaboration and authority when needed – and try to end up with solutions that leave all involved parties feeling at least OK about the situation. But what’s easier to isolate is approaches that don’t work. These are the kind of approaches that if used too often will derail the careers of even very promising and knowledgeable executives. I’d divide the issues into two basic categories.
“My way or the highway” – This occurs when leaders persistently drive too hard for a unilateral solution. The typical sequence of events is: Frustration boils over, rank is pulled and the person highest on the management food chain imposes his or her will. The problem is, this sort of behaviour may win in the short term but likely not in the long. Over the long term, people don’t like being on the receiving end of this kind of treatment. With too much “my way or the highway,” the highway is what many talented employees will be hitting. And too much turnover, too much burnout, is never good for an organization – or for executive careers.
“Avoidance at all costs” – At the other end of the conflict spectrum is an approach that’s equally problematic, but for very different reasons. Avoiding conflict is a natural tendency – after all, conflict is hard and unpleasant. Often emotionally charged. It’s tempting to just put one’s head in the sand and hope it will go away. The trouble is, it won’t. And when leaders consistently duck conflict, it gets noticed – by those above and below. The net effect? Respect is lost. And no one in management, at any level, wants to be thought of as “weak.” If that becomes your reputation, there’s a good chance you won’t be in management too much longer.
As with much in management, a sustainable approach to conflict involves balance: An approach that looks it in the eye and neither ducks it nor steamrolls it – but deals with it fairly, firmly and thoughtfully.
Successfully resolving conflict is a key role of management. As difficult as that may sometimes be.
By Victor Lipman