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Don’t Try to Resolve Conflict Harness It

Don’t try to resolve conflict, harness it. We think about conflict in the wrong way. We look to resolve conflict and read about conflict resolution techniques. The truth is conflict is not able to be resolved, but it can be managed. Once we internalise that notion, we can stop avoiding conflict or making it worse and use it to grow as leaders.

“I can’t change the direction of the wind, but I can adjust my sails to always reach my destination.”

Jimmy Dean

Conflict is like the wind blowing over the Earth. Sometimes it is hot, cold, strong, or even still; however, it is always present. No matter what we do, we can’t stop it, but we can learn to harness the breeze for many purposes such as wind power, sailing, and even flight. Conflict is the exact same, we can’t stop it from happening or even “solve” a current issue. We can use conflict to get out of our comfort zones or innovate our processes. No growth comes without conflict, so let’s learn to manage it.

Does this scenario sound familiar? Two subordinates are having a disagreement and it is brought to your attention. You listen to both sides of the story and make the best decision for the team or organisation. Both walk away and push forward and you feel like you resolved an issue. Is the conflict resolved? There was a winner and a loser. Enough losses and eventually a new conflict arises where he feels no one cares about his ideas or the others are part of the ‘good ole boy’ club. In our minds, though, we solved the issue. 

Now, what about those moments when those same two people walk into your office and after listening to them, you offer another idea or ask the right questions that places them on another path they didn’t see before. Both leave excited and work together to solve the issue. A lot of times this scenario happened to me because I was trying to challenge their solutions and I thought I was a genius. However, I was really just a blind squirrel who happened into an acorn field. It took me a lot of reflection to realise why this worked. I wasn’t trying to stop their conflicting issue, I was redefining it in a way that focused on the issue.

Don’t try to resolve conflict, harness it …

Over time, here are three steps I was able to discern for conflict management:

  1. Define the Problem. Listening to your team, you will inevitably be presented with two primary solutions. We appear to be hard-wired for these binary solutions; it is option A or B. We need to get out of this trap and prevent an endless debate first and foremost. Do this by asking, “What is the problem we are trying to solve?” Remember this all started because an issue arose and then the team created their proposed solutions. Now, they have begun defending them against one another. It is not about the problem anymore, so redirect the conversation back to the real reason we are all here.
  2. Who is impacted? Once a problem is defined, discern who is impacted by it. As managers, we end up creating solutions we will never have to deal with. We dictate the process for those doing the work and very often ignore the 2nd and 3rd order effects. We have all been on the butt-end of a slide dictated by senior leaders with metrics for their staff meeting. A slide that we have to pull information from three different systems, format it in a way where it matches the others, and then present it. We spend an entire day collecting data and building this slide to learn it is glanced at for 5 seconds and it is not even showing the best data available. I purposely made those last few sentences drag on because I wanted to prove my point. If the team brought in the person who was going to build that slide, she could have explained there was a built-in report that shows that information real-time or explained a better set of metrics to use. Get those affected by the problem (or a few key players) into the room and let them be a part of the discussion. The solution is always better when you do.
  3. Make a decision. We are leaders and need to move forward. Therefore, we eventually have to decide on a path forward. Now that the problem is defined and the team is assembled, you will have an idea of long it will take come up with a solution and give them a deadline. You may find it still comes down to two options, but these are the options the collective created together. Choose the one best for the team and the organisation.

Don’t try to resolve conflict, harness it.

These are the basic steps I was able to use over and over again once I understood that working through the conflict was much better than trying to make a decision that appeased or avoided a conflict. I would love to hear about other strategies you use or even successes and failures while using a similar strategy. Reach out through the LinkedIn link in my name below.

Joe Lawrence
Joe Lawrence
Joe has worked for over 20 years to develop his leadership skills through service to his nation and intense study. This lead him to the conclusion that leadership is all about serving others through mentorship.

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