Managers hate conflict. Workplace conflicts create uncertainty, and uncertainty is a manager’s worst nightmare. Uncertainty breeds insecurity that can race through even the largest organizations faster than a California wildfire. Careers have been ruined because a minor conflict erupted into a full-blown crisis that spun out of control. So, what’s a manager to do when she sees the flicker of an impending conflict? Act fast, before conflict ignites a crisis and burns your career to the ground.
1) Forget about asking who started the conflict. Who started it is irrelevant. The more important, and more telling question is who is benefiting from the conflict. In every conflict, someone benefits, and the beneficiary isn’t always the party who brought the conflict out in the open. This is true in those conflicts that have been smoldering just under the surface, and then explode when an outside pressure appears. Effective managers know the fastest way to identify the underlying problem is to identify the beneficiaries of the conflict.
2) Resist the urge to implement a ” flavor of the month solution.” Most managers want to extinguish the conflict as soon as possible. They come up with plan for change that they hope will solve the conflict before it reaches the organizational level, hoping it will act as a firewall to prevent a raging crisis. Peter Senge, an expert on organizational communication, warns against this strategy if you value your career. Real change takes time, and pumping out some sort of let’s-all-change-and-be-happy initiative won’t work, but it will lead to resentment. Instead, communicate to your team that you are working to come up with an innovative and workable plan. Let them know you intend to tackle the problem head on, not hide behind some pre-fabricated policy barrier.
3) Identify the internal networkers in your organization. Internal networkers can be staff members, maintenance personal, and other people who function behind the scenes. These are the people who know how to navigate through the smoldering conflict. They are the water carriers. They know where the smoke is coming from, where the nearest water source is, and where the buckets are kept. In short, they are the bucket brigade of your organization; they can help you connect the conflict with the solution. Successful managers will identify the internal networkers and encourage them to report any sign of a smoldering conflict.
4) Avoid unilateral interpretations of conflict. Effective managers understand that conflict and crisis are multi-faceted, i.e., everyone in the organization is affected to some degree by conflict, and each person will interpret the conflict according to their position. Some may feel it is a matter of great importance. Others may shake their head and claim that they are completely unaffected. A complete analysis of how the conflict is affecting the overall culture and the sub-cultures of your organization will facilitate a resolution that will lead to positive systemic changes.
5) Craft conflict resolution and crisis management plans using your organization’s bootstrap principles. What are the foundational principles of your company or organization? Identify these bootstrap principles and incorporate them into your solution. If your company values its contributions to the community, measure your plan with that in mind. Ask yourself how that value applies to the conflict you are trying to manage. Successful conflict management strategies build on the values inherent in the organization’s culture.
Conflict can’t be avoided, but it can be managed. Successful managers realize that running from a smoldering conflict only guarantees you’ll have to face an inferno down the road. Managing conflict before it erupts into a full blown crisis deepens your value to the organization and strengthens your relationship with your co-workers and superiors.