Conflict is inevitable in any and all organizations of which we are a part. It is part of the equation. And those who are effective in organizations are marked by a capacity to be present to a conflicted situation and not fear the emotional intensity that this involves but actually leverage this towards a solution that is the best outcome for the organization. It is an axiom of effective leadership: leaders know how to manage conflict. It is a basic requirement if one is to provide leadership and make a difference and this principle applies to each level of institutional life.
The goal, of course, is simple: that the conflict is not destructive, but constructive, and that the outcome is one where collegial relationship are not only maintained but even strengthened. That is, that while the conflict is what it is, the outcome is one where the organization is strengthened and the key relationships are also the stronger for the process.
Managing conflict requires, first, a willingness to accept conflict and not chose the path of least resistance. Nothing is gained by simply avoiding conflict. Nothing is gained by suggesting that we should all just get along without having any over which we differ. We turn from any form of false or pseudo harmony. But also, it is often the case that those who are conflict avoiders will simply let those who insist on one thing or another get their way rather than asking what is best for the organization. It may well be that what is best requires that some are not happy with a decision that is being made and they let it be known.
Second, those who manage conflict well keep their personal agendas and their personal irritation in check – not just irritation but their anger. Anger even if and when it might be appropriate, is never the organizational soil in which a good outcome is achieved. Ask hard questions; make your case for what needs to happen; but keep your own agenda secondary if you are discussing a matter of principle and, further, regardless of the issue in hand, make sure that the anger that might accompany the issue is parked – at home or away from the office – when the issue is before the group or the committee for resolution. This also applies to those who moderate a committee or an annual general meeting. There may be a significant difference between debated on the ‘floor’. And the moderator has to keep her/his emotions in check – to be a non-anxious presence through the debate.
Third: remember the simple principle of seeing the situation through the other person’s eyes and, more specifically, what they are experiencing emotionally. This does not mean you give in to petulance or because someone is for some reason personally offended. You can and must still do the right thing; but in the process you can strengthen your capacity to move through conflict to resolution if the other party or one of the conflicted parties feels heard. In a committee, just because a minority is upset and aggrieved does not mean they get their way. But, within reason, we can still let them have their voice and we can attempt to appreciate what it is that lies behind their concern or perspective.
Fourth, ask where there may be a point of compromise that does not in the end keep the situation from heading to a good resolution – doing the right thing. By compromise we do not mean that no one is happy or that the right thing is not done. If you are debating a policy, you still want a very good policy that will serve the organization. If this is about a personnel appointment, you still need to appoint the right person and not merely go with a compromise candidate that is no one’s first choice. But ask where and in what ways can you achieve the best outcome but still give an inch, give something by way of a concession. A recent example in our house is that we made the right decision but we delayed the full implementation for 18 months to provide time for all parties to process what was and is happening and to ease the shock of a hard decision. That does not always work; but this was an example of where that ‘concession’ made a significant difference in the capacity of those who differed with the decision to at the very least accept it. That is why conflict resolution also involves courage.
Managing conflict involves so much more than these four points. But, this are a start – four things to keep in mind when conflict inevitably arises.