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Conflict Management Lessons for Business Leaders

What are key conflict management strategies that managers should know? Why is it important to manage conflicts in your organizations efficiently? Have these strategies changed at all with remote teams in the pandemic? Senior Lecturer of Management & Organizations Moshe Cohen sits down with Insights@Questrom to answer a few questions on negotiation and conflict management strategies in organizations.

WHAT IS YOUR BACKGROUND IN NEGOTIATION AND CONFLICT MANAGEMENT?

After over a decade in physics and engineering, I decided to make a career switch and enrolled in the PEMBA program at Questrom, graduating in 1995. Negotiation was one of my favorite classes in the program, and as a result of taking that class, I trained as a mediator in April of that year and founded The Negotiating Table, a mediation, training, and coaching practice that September. Since that time, I have conducted roughly 500 mediations in courts, companies, and government agencies, helping resolve employment, workplace, discrimination, partnership, contractual, legal, and interpersonal conflicts. In addition, I’ve worked with thousands of individuals at hundreds of companies and organizations, providing negotiation and other training as well as coaching. I’ve been teaching negotiation, leadership, and conflict management at Questrom since 2000. Most recently, my book, Collywobbles: How to Negotiate When Negotiating Makes You Nervous, came out this summer, looking at the ways in which we get in our own way as we negotiate and providing ideas and tools for overcoming these barriers and negotiating effectively.

HOW COMMON ARE WORKPLACE CONFLICTS, AND WHY IS IT IMPORTANT TO MANAGE THEM EFFICIENTLY?

Conflict is everywhere – at home, at work, and elsewhere, and there are many positive aspects to conflict. A conflict of ideas can generate innovation and breakthrough solutions, a conflict of emotions can bring about new insights and closer relationships, and a conflict of needs can bring about understanding and reconciliation. At the same time, many people are uncomfortable with conflict or make crucial mistakes when they encounter conflict. Many people associate conflict with disagreeable behavior and unpleasant interactions and fear that conflict might result in tangible hurt, relationship damage, or emotional pain. As a result, people often try to avoid conflict situations altogether or alternatively, manage them awkwardly by being too forceful, hurtful to others, or creating collateral damage. It is therefore important that leaders create a culture of constructive conflict within their organizations that embraces the vigorous exchange of ideas and addresses interpersonal issues while refusing to tolerate vicious, undermining, or destructive behaviors.

WHAT ARE THE MOST IMPORTANT STRATEGIES TO USE WHEN MANAGING CONFLICTS IN ORGANIZATIONS?

There is no one right way to manage conflict in organizations, though there are many wrong ways. Some conflicts arise due to the structure of the organization, for example, due to contradictory KPIs between sales and engineering. In that case, to properly manage these conflicts, the organization should examine and possibly change the structure that caused it. Many conflicts start with a miscommunication or lack of communication altogether. The people involved then develop narratives that further invest them in the conflict and alienates them from the other parties. To remedy this, organizations need to create multiple channels of communication, both formal and informal, and to promote a culture of communication. Providing conflict management and communication training to managers at all levels can raise people’s competence level at dealing with differences, and in larger organizations, creating an ombuds function to help people manage interpersonal conflicts can be helpful. It’s also important to remember that conflict is expressed and addressed differently in different cultures, so any strategies must be adjusted for cultural variations, but since conflict is present wherever there are human beings, organizations must expect and prepare for it universally.

IN THE CONTEXT OF REMOTE TEAMS, DO THESE STRATEGIES CHANGE AT ALL?

People working on a remote team interact differently, but there is still ample opportunity for conflict. While conflicts around work habits and day-to-day interactions might show up less frequently, there is more opportunity for friction around deliverables, meeting times, and miscommunication. This is particularly true when the teams are spread out over different time zones and across different languages and cultures. It is important to create opportunities for team members to engage with each other informally, and for managers to check in with team members frequently. People need to communicate their ideas openly and to deal with differences directly, otherwise, their conflicts can escalate rapidly into a spiral of conflicting messages and electronic miscommunications. Team members should also be encouraged to communicate via phone and video calls rather than email and chat, and especially to avoid group emails and chats when trying to address conflicts. Conflicts fester when people are isolated from each other, and managers must be on the alert to identify disconnections, rebuild communication challenges, and coach their direct reports as they conduct difficult conversations.

WHAT ROLE DOES UPPER MANAGEMENT PLAY IN CONFLICT MANAGEMENT IN THEIR ORGANIZATIONS?

The way an organization approaches and responds to conflict flows from the top, and the attitude and behavior of the leaders will be carefully watched and emulated by others. Leaders therefore first need to understand their own response to conflict and to manage any discomfort or conflict aversion before they can help others in the organization. It’s a good idea to establish the expectation that different opinions are welcome and that people at all levels shouldn’t be afraid to speak their minds. At the same time, they must demonstrate that people can disagree without being disagreeable, and to continually communicate their expectations regarding interpersonal interactions alongside their vision for the organization. Finally, leaders need to be present and in touch with their people. The higher up you are on the corporate ladder, the more disconnected you might be, getting filtered information from a small number of close direct reports. To lead people effectively through conflict, leaders need to create avenues for direct contact with the many stakeholder groups within their organizations, both to experience the culture with their own eyes and to be seen by the people they are leading.