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Viewpoint: The Art and Science of Conflict Management

A group of people sitting around a table in a conference room.

Editor's Note: SHRM has partnered with the Association of Strategic Alliance Professionals to bring you relevant articles on key HR topics and strategies.

As corporate complexity increases, so does the potential for conflict, both internal and external to the organization. HR professionals should sharpen their conflict resolution skills and even embrace conflict as an opportunity to drive creativity, alignment and growth. 

"We train people to be expert in managing technology, numbers, finance and the law. But this most fundamental characteristic of human interaction—conflict—is something we are somehow just supposed to figure out as we go along, but we don't," said Margaret Heffernan, author and part-time lecturer at the University of Bath School of Management in the United Kingdom. "Not knowing how to handle it, we prefer to ignore it and hope it goes away. The bad news is that it won't go away; unresolved conflict festers and grows. The good news is that it doesn't have to be that way."

In Ancient Egypt, conflict was called repdat. In Javanese, konflik. In Hmong, teeb meem. While the definition of "conflict" is pretty much the same in every culture, "conflict resolution" is a different animal. Cultural constructs and historical contexts influence the meaning—and practice. In English, conflict resolution is frequently interconnected with sports terminology and industrial disputes. In Arabic, it revolves around honor and Islamic ethics. In Hebrew, it's tied to military metaphors. 

Those constructs and contexts can influence business relations globally. It's a pervasive challenge, and now as HR expands its reach globally, the potential for conflict is on the rise—internally and externally. Each additional global location added into a complex organization adds new opinions, customs, conventions and personalities. HR managers can't help but be feeling the heat, and it's a great time to brush up on conflict resolution skills.

One of the most comprehensive studies ever done on the issue, "Workplace Conflict and How Businesses Can Harness It to Thrive," by CPP Inc. in its Global Human Capital Report, found that in 2008, U.S. employees spent approximately 2.1 hours per week involved in conflict (as defined as "any workplace disagreement that disrupts the flow of work"). That translated into over $300 billion in paid hours or the equivalent of nearly 400 million workdays. 

The employee survey also found: 

  • 85% at all levels experienced conflict at some point in their work experience
  • 34% of conflict occurred among front-line employees
  • 29% experienced it almost constantly
  • 27% witnessed it leading to personal attacks
  • 12% observed it frequently among the senior team
  • 9% observed it causing a project to fail 

Worth noting is that the survey was published 10 years ago. What's HR to do, especially when studies show that managers are generally averse to dealing with conflict and the causes of conflict in the workplace? 

The Art of Confronting Conflict 

"We did some polling questions on a webinar, and one question was, 'What is your instinctive first response to a conflict situation?' " said Lynda McDermott, president of EquiPro International Ltd. "Some 53 percent said it was to delay responding." 

"Avoiding conflict can be highly destructive," she said. "My experience is if you avoid disagreements, they escalate into personal conflict. Often what happens is they start at task level, but if they go unresolved or fester, it can have a negative impact on the relationship and turn into a relationship conflict. Then a lack of trust permeates the entire alliance. So you are doing your company a disservice if you don't raise and resolve issues constructively." 

Task-oriented communications are neutral or positive and focus on ideas and perspectives; relationship-oriented communications can be negative and focus on emotions and people. The goal should be to stay rational with the task and start with basic foundational questions such as, "What is the task? Should it be done? What are the experience levels of the people doing the task?" she noted. The task should be objective and rational. But sometimes it bleeds over into the relationship-oriented side, and the skills you need to move it back to task-oriented require constructive responses and analysis to get you back on track, she said. 

"Big Fortune 500 companies typically have a difficult time dealing with conflict," said Candido Arreche, global director of portfolio & partner management at Xerox Worldwide Alliances. He outlined that there are five widely accepted methods for resolving conflict: collaborating, competing, compromising, accommodating and avoiding. 

"Most people think [conflict is] a negative and may want to ignore it. If used correctly, it can be a very powerful tool," said Arreche. "It can help us become better leaders and better relationship owners. By managing and working with conflict, you can enable better change management styles. Some people think it's 'My Way or the Highway.' In any business relationship, if you show you can accommodate different viewpoints, you are creating one of the first critical steps in change management. You are building the start of a collaboration."

Arreche said an easy-to-recall exercise HR professionals can use daily to enhance their conflict resolution skills is the Three S exercise, which helps "make things happen": 

  • Standardize—repeat it over and over.
  • Simplify—"or people aren't going to do it. It's human nature to take the path of least resistance."
  • Structure—it needs to makes sense. 

Essential to conflict resolution are also what he calls the Four C's:

  • Commitment
  • Communication
  • Culture
  • Continuity

"Write them on the back of your hand," he advised. "I see these over and over. If you can address these, you have 80 percent of the win because all are impacted by conflict. A lack of any one of those can contribute to conflict." 

Arreche also advised asking the Five Whys: Five probing questions to perform root cause analysis and help determine some of the best alternatives. And pay attention to the personalities at the table. "Understanding personalities will help you create options and handle your own conflict," he added. 

McDermott also subscribes to a list of dos and don'ts for conflict resolution, which she calls e-Basics:

  • Don't eliminate conflict—just its harmful effects.
  • Encourage candid dialogue and debate.
  • Seek to understand before trying to be understood—clarify mutual understanding.
  • Identify areas that you agree on and isolate areas of disagreement.
  • Actively and mutually explore alternative solutions: Try to have more than two because by having three solutions, you are forcing yourself not to polarize. 

Forging the Toughest Steel 

The old adage "The toughest steel is forged in the hottest fire" may have some merit in conflict resolution practices. What many call "good conflict" can actually enable innovation and creativity when applied appropriately. Eli Lilly and Company has become a staunch supporter of this concept after the company analyzed 14 years of survey data that included questions on conflict. David Thompson, Lilly's chief alliance officer, and Alan Colquitt, Ph.D., its director of global assessment, organization effectiveness and workforce research, analyzed the relationship between the health of the company's alliances and the technical and commercial success of the products on which the partners worked. When the Lilly employees in the alliance were irritated with the partner, there was an increased probability of technical and commercial success.

McDermott agreed that conflict can have a beneficial component: "Having open discussions with disagreement encourages people to be candid and opens up points of view and perspectives," she said. "If I'm on an alliance team, and our task is to come up with innovative solutions … if I'm worried about defending my ideas, I am more likely to keep my ideas to myself. Alternatively, if I'm working in an environment with openly shared ideas and critiques, we can build, and then innovative solutions can emerge." 

So what happens if progress is unlikely to continue and it is time to throw in the towel? "There are always going to be times where people have such conflicting views. If you can't build an agreement, you might have to go your separate ways," said Arreche. "It's okay to say 'No!' Negotiation is sometimes saying 'Yes' to maybe the better of the worst options. But conflict resolution and building an agreement could still be the genesis of something completely new. Many of the tools we use create options that support both parties and might be better than either extremes," he concluded. 

Today's HR manager may need to train, coach and collaborate with corporate leaders to turn healthy conflict into a high-performance advantage.  Looking for more quick tools and process to make conflict an advantage in your organization, check out this site: Conflict Management

Cynthia B. Hanson, ASAP Media Managing Editor, is a certified mediator who received her training from the International Academy of Dispute Resolution (INADR). 

This article is excerpted from ASAP Strategic Alliance Magazine with permission of ASAP. © 2018 All rights reserved. 


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