Managing conflict

"As a team leader you will at some stage find yourself being asked to resolve disagreements and handle conflict."

Here are some top research-based tips for managing conflict. Why not try them out in our team development exercise "Resolving conflict".

Some examples

Sometimes the individuals concerned will have tried long and hard to resolve their different views, and you feel comfortable with your responsibility to choose one of the two options presented to you.

More often you will regard it as their responsibility to find a way forward. Perhaps these two individuals have a history of disagreeing, and you want to show them a way of resolving their differences without coming running to you.

You will also, occasionally, find yourself in direct disagreement with a colleague and want to know the most effective way of moving forward when this happens.

Finding the best way forward starts with understanding how different people feel about conflict and how you can re-frame a disagreement into something more constructive.

Feelings about conflict

It is no surprise to discover that different people have different feelings about conflict.

Some people seem to thrive on it and seek out situations where they can be confrontational. Most of us don’t welcome disagreements but can see the benefits of robust debate even if it gets heated at times and feels uncomfortable. And some people seem to avoid conflict at all costs – often to their own disadvantage, and to the detriment of good team decision-making.

Research indicates that the people who are most successful at managing conflict are in the middle group. They don’t welcome it, but they have learnt to face it and don’t shy away from dealing with it when it happens. They accept the fact that resolving disagreements comes with the patch of leading teams, and even of working constructively with others.

So your first task may be to shift your own behaviour. Be brave if you naturally shy away from conflict, or calm down and be more sensitive if you’re a bull in a china shop. When you're confident in your ability to manage your own feelings about conflict, you can help your colleagues to manage theirs. Our "Giving better feedback" development exercise and "How to coach" briefing will help you coach your colleagues to handle conflict constructively.

Re-framing a disagreement

What you’re after for successful conflict management is to shift the two parties away from an “I’m right, they’re wrong” argument into a joint problem-solving approach. It is easier said than done, but the trick is to get people to frame the disagreement differently.

Work with them to agree on the overall results they’re trying to achieve. This will give them some criteria to assess whether a proposal is a good solution to their disagreement. Constantly stress that they are solving a problem together, not having a fight.

If you can do that, you then move to creating some “win-win” possibilities. These are possible ways forward that take the underlying interests of the two parties and create suggestions that help both sides to get more of what they want. It involves both sides really listening to each other to work out ways of maximising the overall cake. Our page on active listening will help you get that right.

Win-win solutions

Win-win solutions are different from compromise.

Compromise usually involves agreeing on the lowest common denominator – a solution that causes least offence to either side - or agreeing a trade-off where one side sacrifices something it wants in return for a corresponding sacrifice from the other side.

Research shows that the biggest barrier to successful conflict management is the “I win, you lose” approach. Win-win conflict management turns a heated disagreement into a search for a solution that makes both parties happy.