Conflicts create the need for change, and they arise as the result of change. Managing conflicts is one of the most important leadership skills.
We define a conflict as a struggle between two or more individuals over perceived differences about substantive issues, or a struggle over perceived differences about relational issues.
- A substantive issue might be the correct procedure to follow or who gets what resources.
- A relational issue might be about how much autonomy or how much control each person has within a relationship.
Conflict can be uncomfortable, but it is not always unhealthy. And the question that a leader should ask is not, “How do I avoid conflict?” The question should be, “How do I manage conflict effectively in order to produce positive change?”
If conflict is managed effectively and productively, the result is less stress, more creative problem solving, and stronger relationships between team members and between leader and followers.
Conflicts can be very complex. Managing them is almost never simple. Three common approaches are differentiation, fractionation, and face-saving.
Differentiation usually takes place early in a conflict. Its aim is to help people to clearly define the nature of the conflict and clarify their positions with regard to each other.
It requires that individuals in a conflict explain and detail their own positions, usually focusing on their differences and not on their similarities, though it can include both.
Differentiation must be managed carefully because it is more likely to heat up the conflict than to cool it off. There is a significant risk that tempers will flare, and the conflict will escalate. But if it is managed well, differentiation can be helpful in several ways:
- It helps both parties realize how they differ on the issues involved.
- It focuses the conflict and any resolution on the real issues.
- It gives credence — equal weight — to the interests of all parties.
- And it depersonalizes the conflict, focusing it on issues, not on personalities.
Differentiation might require a cooling-off period before seeking ways to resolve the conflict. But when the differences are clearly defined and the focus is on the issues and not the individuals, it is much easier to seek a solution.
Fractionation is the technique of breaking down large conflicts into smaller more manageable pieces. The participants in a conflict agree to downsize a large conflict into smaller conflicts and deal them one piece at a time.
Fractionation offers several advantages:
- It reduces the scale of the conflict. Instead of confronting a huge pile of difficulties, participants can deal with smaller, less complex, and better-defined conflict.
- It helps give focus to the conflict. Narrowing it down makes it easier to for each party to define and clarify their difficulties one piece at a time, instead of trying to solve a whole host of problems all at once.
- Fractionation helps create a better working relationship among the people involved in the conflict. When people agree to deal with the conflict piece by piece instead of all at once, they confirm their willingness to work together to solve problems.
Face-saving is another skill that can help resolve conflicts. It consists of things that people say to each other that reinforce a positive self-image in the middle of a conflict. Leaders can encourage face-saving by giving credence to all parties in a conflict, by keeping the focus on substantive issues, and by modeling face-saving behavior.
People in a conflict often feel threatened, especially if it looks like a win-lose situation. When conflicts result in name-calling, personal attacks, or dismissive comments (“That’s bull***t”), attention gets pulled away from the real issues, and it becomes hard for individuals to work together toward solutions. Conflicts can be made less threatening if the participants try to preserve each other’s self-image rather than trying to damage it just to win an argument.
Messages like, “I see your point, but I see things differently,” or “I understand your concerns, but this is what I’m dealing with,” help to move the focus of a conflict away from the individuals and toward substantive issues. They can signal a willingness to listen and to work together, despite differences of opinion or perspective.
Another value of face-saving messages is that they help people feel that they have handled themselves appropriately during the conflict and that their relationships with one another are still healthy.
Resolving conflicts and achieving a positive outcome is rarely easy. But leaders who strive to avoid conflict only end up sweeping it under the carpet and making resolution more difficult. On the other hand, conflicts that are managed effectively help to create stronger, more creative, more cohesive, and more effective teams and organizations.
—David Sakrison, Executive Director
Wisconsin Leadership Institute