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The art of optimising conflict

Doreen Nel
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No matter where your life or work journey takes you, you will encounter conflict at some point. Understanding how to resolve conflict is useful in your personal and work life but in a leadership role, it is an essential skill. Conflict is a process in which a person perceives that his/her interests are being opposed or negatively affected by another party. The word “perceives” reminds us that sources of conflict and issues can be either real or imagined.

Whilst conflict is often seen as a win or lose situation where one side gains something at the expense of the other, this perception gives the idea of conflict negative connotations. In my experience as a leader as well as working with other leaders as a business coach I have seen that it is possible for conflict to be a positive base from which to build resolutions and I will show you how.

Typically, there are three ways people respond to conflict:

1. They avoiding it - this response is unassertive and uncooperative.
2. They are accommodating - by doing this they are showing the other party that they are putting their needs before their own. It is important to be wary of being too accommodating.
3. They compromise - this approach focuses on finding a common ground to resolve the conflict to benefit all parties.

Can, and should, conflict be avoided, particularly in diverse organisations and the South African work environment?
Conflict can’t be avoided in a healthy working situation. In some cases, it can actually have impressive results if dealt with creatively so that everyone ultimately benefits. This is only possible however if individuals are open with each other, when they are sensitive to each other’s needs and respect each other’s views.

What should the leadership role be in managing conflict?

• To remain neutral - The age-old saying about there being two sides to every story almost always applies in conflict situations. Before you attempt to resolve conflict, be sure you have examined the roots of the conflict objectively and thoroughly, from both sides.

• To be honest about your own feelings - If you find that you are struggling to remain neutral, consider asking another party to take your place.

• To acknowledge the challenge - This can be especially difficult when the conflict seems to be a minor issue. Remember that what seems like a minor annoyance to you is probably a significant issue to the individuals who are in conflict.

• To focus on the challenge, not the individual.

• To seek common ground - The most successful workplace environments are those that encourage the individuals to identify areas of agreement and use those as a basis for creating an acceptable compromise solution.

• To be patient, but decisive - Individuals facing conflict need to tell their stories.

What is the benefit of being able to negotiate conflict situations effectively?

Managing conflict is not an event but a constant practice of looking for ways to create optimal working or life conditions for everyone.
Conflict can be a useful instrument to an organisation as it improves communication, motivates change, stimulates creativity, promotes individual and group growth and resolves and identifies problems as well as promotes the overall function of a company.

Unresolved conflict can lead to personal dislikes amongst individuals and teams. This results in people becoming disengaged from their work and colleagues, which in turn will have a negative impact on the culture and the performance of the organisation.

In summary, there must be a focus on how to optimise conflict, rather than manage conflict - for the better of the organisation.


Doreen Nel is the business head for the Organisational Development and Coaching Division at TowerStone