By Sarah Nicastro, Creator, Future of Field Service
When companies are implementing new technologies or processes, or going through a digital transformation initiative, it can stir up all kinds of feelings among employees – everything from excitement and enthusiasm to fear, confusion or anxiety. And whenever there are strong feelings, you can wind up with conflict.
Most people do not enjoy conflict. Some people, in fact, go out of their way to avoid any conflict, at work or at home, or just about anywhere in between. But healthy conflict management can actually improve the work environment, at least according to author and executive Steven L. Blue. Steven is the president and CEO of Miller Ingenuity, a high technology rail safety systems company, and has written several books on business transformation.
I recently talked to him about how conflict at work can be a good thing, and what he sees as some healthy and productive ways for leaders and managers to address conflict.
How do companies generally manage conflict, and what are they doing wrong?
Companies generally ignore or bury conflict. A sure sign this is happening in your company is when in meetings with you, your subordinates say, “Let’s take this offline.” That generally means ignore it and hope it goes away. It never does. Buried conflict comes back to bite you time and again. And sometimes it bites you again years and years later. Buried conflict never goes away. It continues to fester.
I think we are all sort of conditioned that conflict is a bad thing, but clearly there are going to be disagreements in a work context, and for the sake of an organization you have to work through or resolve them. Are there types of workplace conflict that managers SHOULD discourage or avoid? Are there different types of conflicts that require different approaches?
Conflict is considered a bad thing only because most organizations do not know how to productively and effectively deal with it. Managers should never discourage or avoid it. Every conflict should be dealt with separately, because every conflict has different causes and solutions. The only common denominator in all conflict is either personality or organizational conflict. Personality conflicts are more difficult to resolve. Sometimes these can be resolved by replacing people or reassigning them. Organizational conflicts are usually rooted in different parts of the organization that have conflicting goals. As an example, the manufacturing department might have a goal of getting the product out the back door “no matter what.” At the same time, the quality department might have a goal of never letting anything out the back door that has a quality issue. The way to resolve this is to align the goals of all departments. The way I have aligned all department goals is by having every department share the only goal that matters, and that is profit.
Why should managers engage in conflict and encourage their teams to do so? What are the benefits in terms of team building and problem identification/solving?
Productively and effectively engaging in conflict produces superior profits, better teamwork, and smoother operations. Not engaging in conflict produces just the opposite.
Because of the point I made in my second question, a lot of people really do not have good skills when it comes to engaging in and resolving conflict. How can managers learn those skills and foster them in others? I mean, in some cases, conflict-avoidant people (or highly combative people) may have issues that date all the way back into their childhood, and it seems like a big ask to get managers to try and fix that. How do you help teams have better skills, and what boundaries do you need to respect?
I always engage the services of a professional industrial psychologist skilled in teaching and mentoring managers on the skill of conflict resolution. The question I always address is “not who is right, but what is right.” The idea is to be hard on the problem, but easy on the people. By easy, I mean always respect the person’s views and dignity. In cases of conflict, sometimes everyone is right while at the same time, no one is right. It is critical to listen with understanding of everyone’s views. Always affirm that their views are valuable. Your people always want to know you have understanding and empathy for what they are saying.
What about power dynamics in conflict? Working out a disagreement with a co-worker is one thing; finding a diplomatic way to do that with your boss is another. And for managers, they may not necessarily be getting an accurate picture of disagreements because their employees may be intimidated or worried about job security.
Therapists allow their patients to discuss what is bothering them in “a safe space.” Managers can learn from this. Give your people a safe space to air their views. Affirm that what they tell you is valid and is perfectly okay to feel and discuss. Don’t ever cut them off mid-sentence. The two worst words in the business language are what I call “ya-but.” Instead, managers should practice “yes-and.” If a manager manages by intimidation, you need a new manager. Management by intimidation died in the 80s.
Are there generational differences around conflict that managers need to keep in mind?
Absolutely. Younger people, especially millennials, won’t tolerate “old school” management techniques. Many baby boomer CEOs grumble that they don’t understand millennials. Millennials have different values than baby boomers. They don’t buy the old generational values of “work hard and the company will take care of you.” People today expect more time off than time on. CEOs should understand that and work with it, rather than grumbling and trying to resist it.
I think everyone has had a coworker at one point or another that engaged in fairly unproductive workplace conflict. How do you identify useful conflict versus unhealthy conflict? What do you do about the latter, without discouraging the former?
You can spot productive vs. unproductive conflict in meetings. Observe how people are speaking to one another. All human behavior is rooted in language. That is why I don’t tolerate foul or abusive language anywhere in the company. In meetings, you can feel the tension when people are speaking to each other. If the meeting feels uncomfortable, stop it and dig in. Ask questions as to why someone feels a certain way. Notice I said how a person “feels.” That can start to explain why they have a certain position. If a certain person is abusive or adversarial in the meeting, take them aside afterwards. Make sure they understand your policy of “hard on the problem, easy on the person.” They need to know you will not tolerate abusive or adversarial behavior.