Last Updated on April 6, 2024 by Lorna Barrow

Conflict management cover image showing 2 conflicted men

Before I discuss how to make conflict management your best leadership tool, perhaps we should step back and take a quick look at leadership first.

Very simply, leadership is the process of getting things done through people. To get things done through people, you must be able to exert significant influence over those people.

For me, influence is: 

how you move someone from resistance, to compliance, to commitment.

It follows then, that your level of influence will increase, the more you can manage the conflict in your workplace.


Definition of conflict

I’m sure you know that conflict is basically a struggle or contest between people with opposing needs, ideas, beliefs, values, or goals.

Therefore, it’s safe to conclude that any time two are more people are brought together, the stage is set for potential conflict.

This is despite the fact, that if you ask them, each person will say they were just looking to achieve the best objective, given the circumstances.

There are many causes of conflict in your business or organization, including:

1.  Personality-based conflicts between employees or between you and employees

2.  Employees not meeting expectations

3.  Different working styles among team members

4.  Stress – yours or that arising from among your employees

5.  Different values between you and your board

6.  Not understanding the team you have created (or inherited)

7.  Your employees dissatisfaction with working conditions or rewards

8.  Poor communication approaches by you or your team

As you can see, conflict is present and unavoidable.


Definition of conflict management

Now that we accept conflict is inevitable, you don’t even want to waste time trying to eliminate it. A better approach then, would be to learn how to manage it instead.

To be clear, conflict management is:

The practice of being able to identify and handle conflicts sensibly, fairly, and efficiently.

It is also a key leadership skill which recognizes that conflict must:

  • be actively managed to produce the desired results
  • be minimized so there is not so much conflict as to impede team performance
  • not be the source of non-productive debates that hinder progress
  • focus on providing meaningful solutions and not on dealing with personalities

Yes…conflict CAN be productive if you develop an effective conflict management plan. 


Making conflict management your best leadership tool

There are several ways you can make conflict management your best leadership tool.

A good place for you to start is to become familiar with how conflict shows up and impacts your workplace and what strategies you can use to manage it.

That’s why I’m giving you this post to speed up your efforts and set you up for conflict management success. 

In particular you will learn: 

  1. To recognize how conflict shows up in your workplace
  2. To become familiar with how conflict escalates
  3. How to apply the recognized conflict management strategies
  4. Several conflict management communication strategies you can follow
  5. Not to ignore the negative workplace politics
  6. How to deal with difficult people
  7. To manage the conflict between you and your board of directors

If you’re ready, let’s dive right in!


1.  Recognize how conflict shows up in your workplace

According to Prudence Bowman Kestner & Larry Ray, authors of The Conflict Resolution Training Program:

“A situation becomes a conflict because of people’s reactions to the circumstances or the actions of others.  Those reactions are based on learned values, biases, and life experiences.”

Research shows that reactions to conflict are usually obvious or subtle.

Obvious reactions are easy to spot. People are angry, irritable, demanding, uncooperative and show no concern for others.

Subtle reactions are less obvious but you must be able to spot them anyhow. Examples of these are:

  • Hiding behind the rules
  • Fueling the rumor mill
  • Absenteeism
  • Low productivity
  • Passive/aggressive behaviour

However they show up, subtle or obvious, you must be able to recognize reactions to conflict for what they are.

Why? Because not only is it a requirement for conflict management, it is also important for your role as a leader.


2.  Become familiar with how conflict escalates

Conflict management image show how conflict escalates from disagreement to polarisztion


Were you ever having what you thought was a simple argument and before long you find yourself in a full-blown shouting match? And you’re wondering, “how did I get here?”

Well, while you were in the heat of that conflict, it was quietly going through some stages, each one worse than the one before.

According to the Danish Centre for Conflict Resolution, and captured in the graphic above, conflict escalates through 7 stages.

It starts with simple disagreement and goes all the way through to completely opposing views or polarization.

As a business owner and a leader, while you want to encourage healthy discussion, polarization is never good for your business.

Therefore, when you have a good grasp of conflict management skills, you can stop a conflict long before it reaches the polarization stage.


3. Know how to apply the recognized conflict management strategies

There are 5 recognized strategies or approaches to dealing with conflict.

It’s not enough for you to know them and be able to recite them. As a leader, you should know how to use them to your advantage.

So let’s have a brief discussion about them:

Strategy 1. Avoiding…

Or ignoring the conflict in the short term.

You can use this when the issue is not too important or the parties do not feel very strongly about it.

For example, when there’s disagreement among your staff about the best venue for the annual anniversary celebrations.

You want to stay out of this (for the time being) and allow it to resolve itself or go away.

In the meantime, you are free to deal with more pressing issues.


Strategy 2. Accommodating…

Or giving the aggrieved party what they want.

 There are two instances when this is a good conflict management strategy:

    1. When the issue is not important to you or your business but it is important to the individual 
    2. When it is critical to maintain a good relationship with the individual

For example, your secretary claims that her chair is the sole cause of her back pains. It may be easier (and cheaper!) to simply change the chair than to ask her to prove her claim.


Strategy 3. Collaborating…

Such as creating a win-win situation and dispelling the “zero sum” myth.

This is when you use your negotiating skills to get the conflicted parties to regard the conflict as a mutual problem and then work to find a solution which they can both agree on. 

For example, the machine department insists that a certain high-tech tool would increase productivity and reduce frustration. The accountant is adamant that the business cannot afford it at this time.

When you bring them together, they develop a few win-win options such as leasing the tool or outsourcing the work.  


Strategy 4. Competing…

or taking one side of the conflict at the expense of the other. (win/lose) This situation regularly arises when you (the leader) are part of the conflict.

This does not seem like a strategy you ever want to use. But you may have to resort to using it when you need an outcome in a short time.

For example, your staff needs new uniforms for the upcoming Christmas season and you need a glitzy PR campaign for the same reason.

Using your leadership capacity to make tough decisions, you decide that the PR campaign is more important. In that moment the campaign (you) win and the uniforms (your staff) lose.


Strategy 5. Compromising…

In which both sides give up something.

In this case, no one side gets what they really want but they both agree to the solution. It really is a lose/lose, face-saving situation and requires a good dose of your leadership influence.

For example, a space in the workshop has been cleared and one group wants the space to store files and another to store small tools.

However, when you bring both sides together, and after much discussion, they agree to share the space. The agreement could also agree how much of the space each side will get.


4. Follow these key conflict management communication strategies

You are familiar with effective communication. You even know how to be strong and assertive in every situation.

But when it comes to managing conflict, here are some strategies you want to apply:

1.  Exhibit self-confidence and open-mindedness. This supports your role as leader

2.  Take responsibility for your communication and its consequences

3.  Use positive language. Avoid absolutes like “you always…” and blaming statements like “you’re not listening…”

4.  Express your feelings – don’t dramatize them

5.  De-escalate tense interactions

6.  Ask questions. But ensure they help to direct the discussion and not put people on the defensive

7.  Learn to give feedback effectively so that it cannot be easily interpreted as criticism.

8.  You must be sensitive to the emotional state of those involved

9.  Listen to understand not just to respond

10. You must be sensitive to the emotional state of those involved


5. Don’t ignore negative workplace politics

According to Brandon and Seldman in “Survival of the Savvy,” organizational politics are:

The informal, unofficial, and sometimes behind-the-scenes efforts to sell ideas, influence an organization, increase power, or achieve other targeted objectives.

I like this definition because it portrays office politics as neither good nor bad.

But we all know the negative side of office or workplace politics that include:

  • backstabbing a colleague
  • forming malicious alliances against a colleague
  • gossiping or spreading malicious rumours about others or the business
  • intentionally withholding important information

This negative form of workplace politics is also one of the biggest sources of conflict in your small business. Therefore, you cannot ignore it. Why? Much of it is usually directed towards you.

Here are some tips to help you manage the conflict arising from workplace politics.

1.  Don’t ignore rumors that damage your credibility or interfere with your ability to manage effectively. Correct rumors. Ignoring them makes them true.

2.  Get to understand the motivation or agendas behind the negative behaviour. Build a network of supporters throughout the business to protect your interests and provide you with information

3.  Don’t block any good ideas your staff may have. Demonstrate your leadership by taking them and translating them into results.

4.  Leverage your influence to move the detractors from resistance to compliance to commitment


6. Learn to manage conflict with difficult people

Another serious source of conflict is difficult people.

They lower productivity, kill team morale and require your A-game as far as conflict management skills go.

There are many types of difficult people. For example, those who are:

  • Bad tempered – quick to argue, often blow up, very impatient
  • Unwilling to accept blame and try to assign it to others
  • Slackers – avoid work
  • Complainers, gossips, comedian
  • Malicious – Try to make others fail or look bad

When you have to deal with difficult people, it is important to be assertive and strong in every situation. You need to:

1.  Keep the communication process open and communicate in an open, direct and honest manner

2.  Let them know you take their issues seriously but re-enforce that you cannot allow those issues to take over your business

3.  Be impartial. Don’t take it personally. And be willing to explore the issues which their criticisms raise. 

4.  Listen to understand not just to respond. Ask questions and admit to your mistakes when you make them

5.  If any behaviour warrants dismissal, follow your established process along with the law and fire them.


7.  Manage the conflict between you and your board of directors

I’m admitting up front…

 I’m not a fan of board of directors for small businesses. And they are not even required by law in most countries.  I would rather you consider having a board of advisors.

If you’re not sure of the difference, read this article on the topic.

But anyhow, conflict arises between you and your board of directors when neither of you is sufficiently knowledgeable about your role. For example:

Your board is accountable to your shareholders while you’re accountable to the board (not individual directors).

You want strategic guidance from them but they keep meddling in operations.

You expected that they would be doing your bidding but they have legal requirements to meet.

So here are some tips for you to follow to manage the likely risk of conflict blowing up between you and your board.

1.  Put it on the agenda for your next board meeting — the sooner you start looking for a solution, the sooner you will find it.

2.  Seek common ground first— identify the areas of agreement, before focusing on areas  where you disagree. It is also a great negotiation tactic.

3.  Be impartial in your language and behaviour —focus on the issues, not the people, their personalities or their personal attributes.

4.  Give precise examples of what you need and where you disagree — for example, ”I need reassurance that the board trusts me to manage day-to-day operations.”

5.  When appropriate, address issues directly — if you’re having an ‘issue’ with a certain board member, try to address the issue privately with the board member first. Then share the outcome with the board.

6.  Work on building and growing a positive board/CEO partnership— remember that great relationships don’t happen overnight. Actually, great relationships are built on trust and require care and nurturing to exist and grow.


Your next “conflict management” Step

So there you have them…7 ways you can make conflict management your best leadership tool.

As you are aware, whatever the leadership context, leadership is really about how you influence people to help you achieve the goals of your business.

So now I want you to do 2 things.

First, reflect on your business and think of all the ways conflict can arise and how you could manage it.

You are sure to come up with some other sources besides those I have mentioned.

If you do, research some other strategies for dealing with the new sources you have found.

Second, go back to #3 and look at the 5 strategies for managing conflict. Ask yourself which one would you be most comfortable using.

This would give you some idea of your conflict management style and help you to focus on using the other strategies as well.

To your conflict management success…

Conflict Management: How to Make It Your Best Leadership Tool

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Lorna Barrow

Lorna Barrow is a Business Breakthrough Specialist, an unfiltered Transformational Speaker, a Writer, a Coach and a self-confessed Small Business Junkie. She recognises that small businesses are unique and when it comes to helping you and your business make that BIG breakthrough, she's all in for you!

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