March 2014

Leveraging the Power of Conflict (Part IV of IV)

by Academy Leadership

Establishing a Win/Win Environment

As mentioned earlier, perhaps the most important competency you need to demonstrate in conflict situations is your ability to establish a win/win environment. This requires involving all parties fully in the negotiations, effective listening, and a degree of compromise. You need to lead the negotiations and encourage the development of alternatives that can satisfy all parties concerned. Effective leaders stay focused on goals and objectives with the belief that optimum outcomes can be achieved only when individuals and teams pull together to pursue common aims.

Establishing a win/win environment begins with having this mindset and ensuring that all others involved in the conflict have it as well. Participants must perceive that each can achieve what they desire. This attitude starts to develop when the focus is on interests rather than positions. Win/win negotiations also require a positive attitude oriented on finding a mutually satisfying agreement. The following suggestions should be helpful in reaching the objective of finding win/win solutions:

When all sides of the conflict are open to winning on some points and compromising or losing on others, they are more likely to buy into a solution they can accept and support. On the other hand, when a clear winner and a clear loser emerge from a negotiation session, hard feelings are likely to result. The loser may undermine the agreed-upon course of action, ensuring that no one wins in the long run. Unfortunately, it is naïve to assume that everyone who talks about win/win solutions is actually committed to playing that way. There will be times when at least one party is playing a negotiation game as if it were win/lose, while putting up an agreeable win/win facade.

When you suspect you may be dealing with such a case, you may feel as though you must protect yourself. But that approach can lead you to act defensively, which only reinforces the very win/lose dynamic you intend to counteract. When faced with such situations, try some of the following suggestions:

Mimizing Chronic, Recurrent Conflict

In the course of resolving a conflict, members of opposing sides can respond in one of three ways. They may:

The strategies discussed thus far can help decrease the harmful effects of conflict, but they don’t necessarily address the goal of preventing ongoing conflict. You must always seek ways to keep conflict at a reasonable level if you are to benefit from its advantages and at the same time protect the organization from its harmful effects. You also need to find ways to keep conflict at an optimum level to allow the organization to remain focused on achieving its goals.

To minimize the damaging repercussions of recurring conflict on organizational efforts, follow these guidelines:

  1. Identify the individuals, teams, or business units that may be frequently in conflict.

  2. Determine when and over what issues these entities disagree. For example, does it appear they are in conflict over the same resources, is there disagreement over how to achieve goals, or is there a fundamental difference of opinion about which goals are most important to achieve?

  3. Objectively assess the perspective from each party’s point of view to gain an understanding of why each behaves the way they do when they are in conflict.

  4. Determine if there is a need to bring the competing parties together to discuss the issues. If so, you should facilitate this session and begin by explicitly stating that the point of the meeting is to find a solution that will largely satisfy all parties and benefit the organization at large.

  5. Have each party state their interests on the issue and describe why they believe they are in competition with the other party. Your paramount responsibility in this part of the session is to manage the level of tension. You will need to monitor and coach both parties in their active listening skills.

  6. Remind the competing parties that the problem itself is their common enemy. Encourage them to focus on fixing the problem rather than fixing blame. Once you set the expectation for them to attack the problem, and not each other, it will be easier to come to a mutually acceptable solution.

  7. Engage the group in a problem-solving session to determine ways they can work together to achieve mutual goals, eliminate the source of the current conflict, and minimize conflict in the future. You need to play the role of facilitator and coach in order to encourage collaboration and compromise.

Summing Up

Differences leading to conflict naturally occur when good people, teams, and business units try to satisfy their needs, act according to their beliefs, adhere to their values, and pursue their goals. As the pace of change increases, the potential for increased levels of conflict rises as well. However, conflict can serve as a spark to challenge assumptions, inspire dialogue, and initiate new ways of thinking and operating. When leaders appropriately manage conflict and learn to leverage its benefits, conflict can become a positive and motivating force for success.

Leaders vary in their assumptions about conflict. Some feel conflict is always harmful and try to avoid it. Others deal with it as a necessary evil. The most productive assumption to hold about conflict is that it is inherently neither good nor bad, but positive outcomes can arise from conflict if it is managed well.

The most desirable solution-oriented strategy for conflict management is collaboration. By creatively engaging the problem, a collaborative solution can be generated in which everyone is a winner and everyone is better off. This collaboration strategy is more time-consuming than other approaches but it has the added benefit of helping build cohesion and morale. A secondary solution-oriented strategy for conflict management is compromise, in which each party gives something up in order to reach an agreement. The downside of compromise is that parties may regret what they had to give up, which is not the case with collaboration.

Leaders should always try the collaborative approach to managing conflict first, and move to compromise only when absolutely necessary. The four steps of conflict management are:

  1. Approach the conflict as a win/win situation.

  2. Distinguish between misunderstandings and conflict.

  3. Focus on interests rather than positions.

  4. Communicate clearly.

The most important thing you can do as a leader in a conflict situation is establish a win/win environment by exercising your interpersonal skills, offer respect, trust, and courtesy to all parties, keep egos in check, seek solutions that satisfy everyone’s interests, and identify the critical points of both agreement and disagreement. All the while, you must be ready and willing to deal with participants who continue to approach the situation from a win/lose perspective. You must be ready to seek solutions that remove these parties from the negotiation.

For all its potential benefits, conflict can be destructive in the workplace if conflicts continually recur between people or groups. In order to help resolve recurrent conflict, it is important to remind the competing parties that they are not enemies, that the problem itself is their common enemy. When parties in conflict can see the problem rather than each other as the prime obstacle to resolution, it will be easier to come to a mutually acceptable solution.