The Transformative Power of Conflict

Poorly managed conflict can cost companies astronomically. Not all conflicts can be resolved but failing to address them at all can make matters worse. High employee turnover because of unresolved conflict can be costly and disruptive — that is, if you can even find more qualified candidates.

How much is unresolved conflict costing your organization?

The unprecedented resignation of employees in 2020 and 2021 tells us that addressing some of the increased conflict caused by uncertainty and ambiguity in organizations should be a top priority. In addition to the direct financial cost, leaders spend a lot of time handling conflict, disagreement, and difficult people.

Several large studies on conflict – e.g., CPP Global (2008) and CIPD (2020) – revealed interesting statistics. For example, an overwhelming majority (85%) of employees at all levels experience conflict to some degree. Employees spend an average of 2.1 hours every week — about one day a month — dealing with some form of conflict (involved in a disagreement, managing a conflict between co-workers, etc.). Over half of HR professions questioned (51%) spend 1–5 hours a week managing disagreements between employees. The time leaders spend managing conflict could be better spent elsewhere.

Turning Lemons into Lemonade

It’s not just about whether conflict should be avoided or how to best avoid it, because how we view and manage conflict can be transformative. Although the word “conflict” usually has a negative connotation, successfully managing it can generate positive outcomes for everyone, such as improved problem solving and overall organizational performance (Stone, D., Patton, B., & Heen, S. 2010).

Conflict comes in all shapes and sizes — from a small difference of opinion to a major schism in beliefs and values. When these differences become toxic, the dilemma is whether to avoid it or confront it. This is especially important when people feel vulnerable, when the outcomes are uncertain, and when people care deeply about the issues and people involved.

Taking a Learning-Stance Approach

Tact and diplomacy go a long way in communicating with others, but they won’t fix everything. Sometimes you need to address the conflict head on. This requires people to objectively examine their own biases, emotions, and agendas. Rather than just trying to make others accept their position at the expense of the other side, there must be an effort on both sides to take a “learning stance.” This means that parties look beyond who is right and come to a realistic solution they can all agree on. Achieving perfect results with no risk will not happen but getting better results in the face of tolerable odds just might.

Preparing for the Next Difficult Conversation

Sometimes we need to honestly examine our differences and come up with a mutually beneficial path forward. It’s not about avoiding the conflict that may arise; it’s about being prepared with a way to talk about it when it does.

Preparing for Difficult Conversations Checklist

The following checklist is a process to prepare parties for difficult conversations. The first two steps focus on individual preparation. This involves diagnosing (to the best of one’s ability) the problem, identifying the emotional footprint of the issue, and weighing the impact of addressing the issue with the other party. Steps three through five outline a process for having a dialogue and forming a shared solution.

Meet the Author

Maryanne Wanca-Thibault, Ph.D.

Maryanne has more than 30 years of experience as a Consultant and Advisor in the areas of leadership assessment, organizational development and executive coaching. As a Partner of DHR Leadership Consulting, she helps clients assess fit for executive, C-suite and board positions.

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