Managing a Culture of Conflict

Updated: Sep 23

Conflict is good for an organization. Although the word is often associated with an altercation, conflict encompasses any disagreement—which is not necessarily bad. Conflict naturally results when people have different needs, opinions, or perspectives. Successful global leaders actively foster a culture that celebrates diversity of thought and experience, encourages the civil exchange of ideas, and embraces differences of opinion. In short, they foster a culture of conflict.


The challenging task assigned to management is to bring together people who possess different skills, personalities, and backgrounds to work cohesively as a team. People with diverse backgrounds and strengths are richly abundant within a global organization. Diversity can manifest as a source of tension, an untapped resource, or a valuable tool. Diversity in culture, education, and experience leads to different problem-solving perspectives, approaches, and ideas. How these differences are addressed will determine whether the conflict will be constructive or destructive to team unity. The aim of conflict management is to eliminate the negative, more hostile aspects of conflict and capitalize on each team member’s ability to challenge one another in order to achieve exceptional group outcomes.


Individual Conflict


Conflicts between individuals can be difficult to navigate in the heat of the moment. Disagreement often comes across as a personal attack on the other person and their ideas, leading them to become defensive and triggering their “fight or flight” response. Individuals faced with heightened emotion tend to either lash out or shut down, and neither response is conducive to a collaborative team dynamic. Learning to diffuse an emotionally charged situation is critical to managing personal conflicts. Fortunately, there are proven techniques to turn conflict into positive and desired team attributes.


The Rational Approach


The first step in removing emotion from the situation is to address your own reactions—choose not to be offended. This is often easier said than done. Logical reasoning occurs in the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s rational center that facilitates deliberate judgement and forward-thinking. Unfortunately, this part of the brain, which is involved in the planning and reflection phases of decision making, is not naturally triggered during a crisis itself. Instead, the limbic or emotional system of the brain reacts reflexively, often overwhelming logical thought. For this reason, it is important to practice pausing and considering a situation before reacting in order to engage the prefrontal cortex.


In practice, it may be helpful to consider the root of an individual’s behavior by creating positive hypothetical scenarios. “Optimism is associated with rising levels of dopamine which engages the [prefrontal cortex]” (The Dalai Lama Center). If a car is speeding down the road, recklessly passing others, many would feel angry at the perceived threat. But considering a few additional details might make the observed behavior acceptable. What if it were a medical emergency, and the driver needs to get to the hospital as quickly as possible? Or perhaps the car is driving in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, where it is appropriate for well-trained racecar drivers to speed and swerve around their competition. Giving others the benefit of the doubt allows individuals to withhold response until they possess all the facts and can respond rationally.


Those who are most outspoken against an issue are often emotionally invested because of their own experiences. Similarly, passionate people who are thinking with their limbic system are likely not concentrating on diplomacy when delivering their message. Rather than assuming the individual is being confrontational out of spite or disregard for your insight, consider what perspective might lead them to feel so strongly. Do they have expertise in this area? Have they felt unheard in the past? Have their shared ideas historically been disregarded? This insight is a good place to start; but don’t just speculate—ask to understand their perspective.


Seeking Other Perspectives


Create a climate that encourages individuals to express their point of view and actively listen as others express theirs. This is particularly important in cultures where etiquette dictates that individuals must wait to be invited to speak or to not challenge ideas presented by their superiors. This cultural shift presents a potential source of negative conflict where some feel that individuals who wait to be called on are not willing to participate and others feel that they are not being included by those dominating the conversation. Be aware of an individual’s culture and the dynamics within a team to create a climate where team members listen at least as much as they speak.


When individuals feel that they are being invited to share and that their comments are listened to and valued, they will no longer feel defensive of their views. “Allowing each conflicting team member to [explain] their stance eliminates the problem of miscommunication. Furthermore, allowing them to rationalize their opinions may bring more agreement and understanding from other team members,” says Gerald Ainomugisha. Once their input has been heard and acknowledged, they will be more prepared to work as a group to come to a consensus.


Clarify Towards Compromise


When discussing opposing ideas, seek to emphasize unity by focusing on shared middle ground. What is the common goal? What may be similar about each approach? Where do team members disagree? What might those who oppose your view know that you don’t? On the points of contention, encourage individuals to ask their own questions and explore other ideas. Making it a discussion and asking clarifying questions shows that team members are listening, gives people the opportunity to express their ideas and concerns, and provides an opportunity to explore other ideas together. Foster an environment that inspires people to learn something new.


Remember that there is no winner or loser in conflict negotiation. It is also important to note that not every situation has a “right answer,” and it is unlikely that every member of the team will be in complete agreement as to what the best approach is. The team wins whenever a decision is reached amicably.


Willingness to Adapt


Some aspects of business can be a matter of trial and error. Individuals should not take it personally when a strategy they support does not work out. Rather, they should treat setbacks as a learning experience and give that same consideration to others when their attempts fall short. When conflict arises around a personal error, individuals should be willing to admit their mistakes. Acknowledging a mistake is not a sign of weakness, but one of courage that is likely to earn others’ respect. Identify what went wrong or what mistakes were made, make a plan to address those issues, and move forward. This process is a great opportunity to include others. They can learn from the experience and help to address the issue quickly, turning potentially negative conflict into productive and beneficial conflict.


Blue Kite Marketing was able to turn a mistake into an opportunity to connect with their customers when they forgot to include in their weekly marketing email the mail merge tag that inserts a person’s name. Instead of a personalized greeting, each email read “Morning, <name>!” Upon discovering the issue, founder and CEO, Laura Click, quickly got to work on a second email:


In an interesting turn of events, this email received more responses than ever—from subscribers who had never contacted the company before, old friends and colleagues catching up, and prospective customers inquiring after their consulting services. In a situation that could have caused significant conflict and blame, acknowledging and taking responsibility for the mistake turned a potential failure and source of conflict into a positive event for the company.


Keeping a Record


Some situations of conflict escalate into hostilities that require the assistance of an advocate, manager, or even legal counsel. Employees need to know their point of contact for dispute resolution within the organization and what information that individual will need in the event of an investigation—formal or informal. In these situations, written records keep communication clear and dispassionate. It is important to keep a detailed, factual record of the incident(s) in question. Note the date, time, and any witnesses present. “That [record] can be invaluable [down the road] when one side is remembering everything just perfectly for them to win…versus another side that has the [record] from before there even was any [third party involved],” says the Government Accountability Project regarding whistleblowers.


As a quality manager at Boeing, John Barnett clashed with leadership over substandard parts that were used in the 787 Dreamliner, rendering the planes unsafe. He contacted his ethics officers, human resources, and federal regulators to eventually address his concerns. “If I had a face-to-face with my manager, I would go back to my desk and send myself an email saying everything that was discussed,” he said. In this way, Barnett kept a dated record of who was present and what was said. When it came time to report, the record lent credibility to his story and provided the evidence needed to address his concerns.


Leaders should set a precedent of being unbiased and approachable when their assistance is needed. Be careful not to side with anyone when managing team conflict. The aim of conflict management is to enhance group cohesiveness, respect, and productivity in an organizational setting. It is the team leader’s responsibility to make sure that everyone can continue working together under their supervision after the dispute has been resolved.


Tone at the Top


The role of leadership is to demonstrate that diversity of thought and experience is not only encouraged, but that it is essential to the organization’s success. Diversity generates ideas and innovation that can set a company apart from its competitors. One way to prepare a team to positively experience conflict is to make it a part of an organization’s culture. Brainstorming sessions are a good way to normalize conflict by allowing team members to share their ideas and arrive at an implementation strategy. Not everyone will agree on the path forward, but company culture should be such that everyone is expected to participate and be involved in the decision. This will create an environment where individual expression and disagreement is valued, and conflict is viewed as healthy and expected in order to arrive at informed decisions.


The global nonprofit, Catalyst, defines inclusion as “the simultaneous experience of feeling valued for your uniqueness and having a sense of belonging on your team.” Improving inclusiveness is a priority in many organizations. A study by McKinsey & Company, for example, found that women of color were less likely to receive mentoring and recognition for their work contributions. Mentoring lays the groundwork for belonging and safe, open dialogue, while recognition encourages the exchange of ideas. Managers need to be good mentors to all of their subordinates. “When individuals feel included—when they belong and are valued for their uniqueness—they are more likely to be innovative and team-oriented and more likely to stay in the company” (Catalyst).


The Direct Approach


When healthy conflict escalates to hostile division, leaders must be prepared to confront the issue directly and in a timely manner. The first trick is determining which situations require outside interference. Most conflict can be settled by the disagreeing parties without involving management, but if the employees can’t work it out themselves, management should be prepared to jump in. According to Glenn Llopis at Forbes, knowing when to get involved can be time-sensitive—jumping in too early sets the precedent that management will solve everyone’s problems for them, while delay hinders team progress and can be viewed as weakness in leadership.


The other difficulty with management becoming involved is determining whether to do so publicly or privately. If a problem is pervasive, it will likely need to be addressed publicly to send the message to everyone that the behavior is not acceptable. On the other hand, issues with the behavior of specific individuals can be handled one-on-one. This approach shows compassion to the person being corrected, as it allows them to save face with the rest of the team; however, it may appear to be inaction to the rest of the team. Be sure to let those with complaints know that the situation is being handled.


Providing Resources


Organizations regularly train employees to provide needed job-skills. Training should also include methods to introduce conflict into discussions so that it is perceived as expected and healthy—not reactive and confrontational. These methods should establish boundaries that are formalized in an organization’s written policies. To create an atmosphere where conflict is viewed positively, policies for misconduct and harassment should be clearly communicated and enforced. There should be a clear chain of command in place when employees need to report a complaint to or bypass their immediate supervisor. Human resource departments often serve as employee advocates in these situations.


In the unwanted situation where conflict becomes negative, written policies help to keep the mediation process unbiased and consistent. Employees can empower themselves by knowing these policies beforehand. A best practice is for an organization to have annual trainings that encourage their employees to explore the code of conduct and conflict resolution resources available to them. Personal development training can help individuals develop the cultural competency to understand and appropriately handle their differences. These measures will make conflict resolution a smoother experience for everyone.


Performance reviews can be regularly used to course correct and address specific conduct issues. Since these meetings are applied to everyone in an impartial way, suggestions for improvement are perceived as less of a personal attack. Just as individuals address both similarities and differences when they discuss their own conflict, management can provide a combination of positive and negative feedback to soften criticism. These reviews also provide an opportunity to give private coaching to those who struggle to handle conflict in a positive way. Training, written policies, and performance reviews are recommended methods to manage conflict and create a more inclusive company culture of welcomed debate and collaboration.


“When dealing with conflict resolution through a lens of opportunity, conflict can be a healthy enabler of growth for your business—and professional growth for all of the people involved,” says Glenn Llopis. Teams that learn to handle tension in their professional relationships will be prepared to cope with the other challenges of business. Global leaders need to make conflict positive and rewarding. In doing so, they also need to be prepared to manage the conflict that they and those within their influence face. Be prepared to celebrate the successful resolution of that conflict as a team.

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