Ideally, I'm sure that we'd all like to have workplaces that are completely free of conflict.
We may have dreams of an organization full of people who get along all the time, always acting harmoniously.
But reality quickly reminds us that this is not possible. So the important question to ask is:
How do we handle conflict when it arises personally or between people we lead?
Do we ignore it? Do we feign niceties to create the façade of harmony? Do we aggressively defend our position? Do we allow our people to do the same?
Effective leaders who truly care about their people and achieving excellence take a different approach.
They embrace conflict.
In many cases, conflict is very healthy, especially in the case of professional conflict.
When people disagree on a course of action, there is often a greater chance that the absolute best solution will be discovered. If no one challenges ideas, especially the ideas of the leader, then people's talent and experience is going to waste.
As a leader, it is vital to create an environment where people feel safe to challenge our ideas, and are actually expected to do so.
Although personal conflict may not be as healthy as professional conflict, it is inevitable in even the most harmonious organizations. A similar attitude of embracing the conflict is much more skilful than ignoring it.
When we notice conflict arising -- whether it involves us or is conflict between others -- we can acknowledge it, without judgment. It's OK. Conflict is natural.
With this accepting attitude, we are much more likely to address the conflict immediately, and in more skilful ways.
If we're involved in the conflict, we could simply mention to the other person, "I notice some tension between us. I really value you and our relationship, so I'd like to resolve it. Could we set up a time to talk about what's going on?"
I highly recommend studying non-violent communication for the resolution of conflict. The essence of the practice is to focus on hearing the other person out first, focusing on facts versus opinions, and acknowledging their feelings without defending ourselves.
In a similar way, if we are the one who feels wronged, we focus on only expressing facts and how those facts make us feel. Also, we express that our feelings are caused not by the other person but by our failed expectations.
For example, instead of saying, "I'm ticked off at you because you are always late," we could say, "I noticed that you were late three times this week. I feel frustrated. I expect excellence from you, including being on time consistently. Because this expectation isn't met, I feel frustration."
Communicating in this way helps the person empathize with us. We're not attacking her or him. We are only stating facts and the feelings that we have around expectations that aren't met.
When a person can empathize with us, she or he is much more likely to respond favorably to our request, such us, "Are you willing to correct this?" (If we're addressing an employee, "How are you going to do so? What should the consequences be if you don't?")
Resolving Conflict Between Employees
If the conflict is between people we lead, we should facilitate a similar dialogue between them as soon as we notice the conflict. (For some great tips on how to facilitate such a dialogue, check out The Servant Leader, by James Autry.)
Unresolved personal conflict can be extremely toxic for a team or even an entire organization. Thus, the dialogue is not optional. Non-compliance should result in termination.
Termination may sound a bit harsh. But if we truly care about our people and our organization we are best serving both by embracing conflict and addressing it immediately.
As Autry suggests in The Servant Leader, we could even go a step further, and create periodic meetings where people have a safe environment to express feelings in a skilful way. This can prevent many conflicts from arising in the first place.
Applying this tool has allowed some of the organizations that Autry has worked with to completely transform a culture that was once toxic into one where harmony is the norm. Conflict is not absent. It is simply embraced with the appropriate care.