Conflict management is a way for teams to both view conflicts as potentially beneficial instead of destructive, and to ensure that they lead teams to greater growth and development.
While we often think of conflicts on teams as something negative, this is not always the case. In fact, sometimes conflicts can be beneficial. When the conflict in question is about ideas or ways of solving problems, there might not always be one clear “solution” or “right answer”. In fact, letting such conflicts on teams play out might in the end be the best way to ensure that everyone feels heard, and to allow for the natural creative process to take place.
Conflict management is a way of dealing with conflicts that encourages this type of thinking, and proposes that instead of avoiding conflict, teams try to harness them towards productive ends. Unlike conflict resolution though, conflict management is not a step by step process. Rather, it emphasizes identifying conflicts and using different management styles to come to the best conclusion for the team.
In the following blog post, we’ll break down what conflict management is, the different styles of conflict management, and some tips for using it on your team.
What is conflict management?
First, let’s examine what conflict management is a bit more closely. Conflict management is hard to define in a single sentence, like for example conflict resolution, because so much depends on conflict management on the team involved, what it wants to accomplish, and the conflict itself.
So let’s start by contrasting conflict management and conflict resolution. While conflict resolution is focused on the goal of coming up with an agreement, treaty, or resolution to the conflict that both sides can agree to, conflict management takes a step back. It asks, instead:
- What does the team hope to achieve in the future?
- In what ways can the team use this conflict to move further towards these goals?
- How can the team minimize any overspill into interpersonal conflicts?
As you can see, conflict management is not so specific about what needs to happen at the end of the conflict, or even if there is an end at all (sometimes there just isn’t a clear-cut end to conflicts–and that’s okay).
One thing it is focused on is the future of the team (i.e. the growth and development of the team towards their goals). It thus seeks to place conflicts within that future orientation. Conflict is not antithetical to team growth, but is rather a part of the process whereby teams learn and develop together.
When should conflict management be used?
Of course, here we have to make it clear that conflict management isn’t necessarily applicable in all cases. When conflicts are particularly pronounced, aggressive or disruptive, or are based on miscommunications or misunderstandings about roles or tasks, resolving the conflict as quickly as possible through conflict resolution or mediation techniques may be the most productive response.
Conflict management works better when the conflict is about ideas, or when there is no clear-cut solution. It is also more applicable when the conflict is more long-term, in which case finding ways forward and moving beyond the conflict can be achieved by focusing on combining ideas, creating new ones together, and finding new ways of collaboration.
Here is a summary of when conflict management can be the most beneficial:
- Conflicts on teams that are longer-term or team-wide.
- Conflicts on teams that are idea or viewpoint-based.
- Other conflicts that have no clear resolution point, and in which both sides must continue to work together.
- Preventing interpersonal conflicts from spilling over into work or vice-versa.
- Creating a collaborative environment for constructive conflict can occur safely.
Different styles of conflict management
As we mentioned earlier, conflict management is not necessarily one specific process, and the methods employed in conflict management will be different depending on the type of team and conflict.
However, there are a few generalized styles of conflict management that you can use to organize how you deal with conflicts on your own team. Let’s look at five of the most common now:
This style of conflict management is about purposely letting one side or idea “win out”. While this might seem unfair, depending on how it is used it can actually be productive, and let the team move on to decide more important tasks or goals.
Let’s say that you’re having a conflict about what idea to implement. If a team member, or group of team members, feel very strongly about their proposal, while other team members may disagree but not feel as strongly, it might be better to let the first team have their idea implemented.
This style assumes a fair amount of trust on teams, in order for the side that “loses” to not feel hurt. With a lot of trust, team members will implicitly understand when to let go and allow other team members’ ideas to win out. Team leaders and managers also play a large role here, by working to minimize negative feelings and ensuring fairness, equity, and inclusion in the decision-making process (as well as future decision-making processes).
Again, this style of conflict management might seem bad at first, but bear with us. In order to properly deal with conflicts and avoid creating disruptive spirals, teams may choose to avoid the conflict for a period of time, or break the discussion off into different channels. This can be a way of cooling everyone down and allowing for some breathing room.
For example, you’re discussing a marketing strategy altogether and the discussion starts to get heated. In this case, you might want to pause the discussion for now and wait to return to it next week. Giving everyone time to think and process what has been said will have some cooling effects, and allow everyone to return to the conversation in a better mental space.
Alternatively, you could avoid the conflict by breaking the discussion of the idea up into multiple channels. This can be achieved by having smaller groups or teams discuss the issue, where there is less chance of widespread arguments. Or you could break the issue itself up into smaller sections and deal with each one separately. These strategies are a type of avoidance too, just in a more roundabout way.
Needless to say, avoidance isn’t a good long-term strategy, especially for deep-seeded conflicts that keep returning. It’s also not incredibly effective or even always applicable during crunch times when important decisions need to be made. Still, some avoidance tactics can be useful in times of stress, like focusing on the task at hand and putting off other issues until after the crunch time is over.
This is another style of management that you have to be careful with. By competition, we mean harnessing specific competitive forces to work out the best solution to a problem, or to find a new idea. Competition can drive team members towards pushing themselves to do their best. But remember that unmanaged competition can have negative effects, like creating unnecessary animosity or exclusivity among team members.
Competition can best be used when you are dealing with multiple ideas, or need to come up with a brand new one and are having conflicts because of it. A good way to deal with this is to have team members break into smaller teams to try to reach a new solution first. Or, have teams debate their ideas openly. This type of competition, that is focused on ideas, encourages creative and rational thought. It can also potentially spark new ideas that your team hadn’t thought of before.
But again, team leaders and managers have a large role to play in preventing the competitive spirit from spiraling out of control and affecting interpersonal relationships. Team members should not sacrifice trust for competition.
In this conflict management style, the goal is to find a middle path. This is similar to conflict resolution, however here the goal is to find a compromise between different ideas or ways of thinking. Compromise though, requires that all sides give up something in the process. Therefore, trust is necessary, as is the ability to decide on what’s actually important.
Because compromise is lose-lose, there may also be some ill-feelings. During the process, encourage team members to talk openly and discuss their thoughts and feelings. If there is a particular point that team members care about, you might find that it’s not worth it to get rid of it.
We all implicitly know what compromise is and so we do have a tendency to automatically head towards it as a solution. And while compromise may be useful in a lot of situations, there may be better ways forward, so teams should try to think creatively, because there is a way to create a win-win situation…
Collaboration is the longest-lasting and most sustainable style of conflict management. With collaboration, team members combine their ideas. But unlike compromise, they aren’t necessarily giving up anything. Rather, team members work together to retool and reshape their ideas so that they meld together.
Collaboration is ultimately a creative process. Team members deal with their conflict by creating something new together, which moves them beyond their previous conflicts. In this way, team members truly harness their conflict towards productive means.
The only drawback of collaboration though, is that it takes time and effort. Collaboration doesn’t just require creating the right environment and emotional connections, it also requires time to find creative solutions.
However,one thing that can speed up the process though, is regular team building, which can train teams to trust and collaborate together more easily. Collaboration should therefore be the ultimate goal for most teams if they have built that sense of trust, since it is about placing conflict within the creative process.
Tips for using conflict management
1. Create a good team environment
Having a good team environment really changes the type of approach your team will take when it comes to conflict management. Teams that have a solid foundation of trust, that are open with their feelings and thoughts, and that are psychologically safe will have an easier time managing conflicts and harnessing them towards creative ends.
2. Think of all conflicts as potentially productive
Having the right mindset is also important in conflict management. If you approach each conflict with the mindset that it can be productive, your team will be better able to find productive ways of moving forward. They also won’t get stuck in the thinking that all conflicts are bad and should be avoided.
The truth is that conflicts are sometimes necessary, and even good. They can show you things about your team that you hadn’t noticed, and they can point your team to issues that need to be dealt with. While not all conflicts will be good or beneficial, having a positive attitude about them will keep your team’s eyes open to the benefits that they do offer.
3. Identify the type of conflict you are dealing with
Along with that, all conflicts are different and there is no one-size-fits-all solution to them. Conflict management emphasizes this fact, and encourages teams to search for different ways of dealing with conflicts each time. This will likely lead to finding the best possible solution, and inspire new and creative solutions.
4. The goal should always be development and growth
The ultimate goals of conflict management should always be the growth and development of the team. Even if you don’t necessarily succeed in solving the conflict completely, there is still growth through learning from mistakes. As long as your team realizes these lessons together, they will be able to move on and become better. When it comes to managing conflict, always ask, “Will this expand or contract my team?”
5. Make sure all team members are being heard
A major requirement of effective conflict management is ensuring that all team members’ voices are being heard throughout the process. When this happens, conflicts aren’t likely to return as frequently. You want all team members active and engaged in the process, so that you know where your blindspots are and can be certain that the benefits of managing the conflict productively are widespread.