As part of our work at the Leadership Development Institute at Eckerd College (LDI), a network associate of the renowned Center for Creative Leadership (CCL), we work with highly successful managers and executives from major companies, government agencies, and nonprofit organizations. During our programs, we encourage participants to explore their strengths as well as possible areas for improvement. This focus on self-awareness is supported by assessment instruments that seek feedback from colleagues at work and fellow program participants.
Over the years, it has never ceased to amaze us how many of our participants have special difficulty with one particular element of leadership: dealing effectively with conflict. Some try to avoid it and wish it would just go away. Others tend to get angry and lash out at others in ways they later regret. These methods for dealing with conflict should not be surprising since conflict is a difficult area for most people. Our colleagues at CCL have noticed similar patterns. As a result of our experiences, LDI sponsored the development of a new conflict assessment instrument and created new programs on leadership and conflict management.
As we interacted with others in the training and development and conflict management fields, one thing became apparent: a large need for improving the conflict management skills of people in organizations. The costs of poorly managed conflict are high in financial terms. The costs are equally as high in terms of the quality of working relationships and morale. Although there are already many books and programs that do a good job of helping people improve the way they deal with conflict, many still just do not seem to handle conflict well. We also heard laments from trainers about the difficulty of getting buy-in from decision makers for such programs.
We came to believe what was needed was a call to action for leaders. Rather than waiting for training and development staff to sell the leader on the need for such a program, we came to believe that effective leaders should spearhead the effort by asking how soon they could get this kind of training in their organization. As we explored the issue, it became clear that leaders would need to do more than just ask questions. They would need to become more proficient in the ways they personally handle conflict, and they would need to understand the basics about how to ensure that their organization becomes conflict competent.
These observations led us to write this book. It should be noted that we always considered this a leadership book that deals with conflict management rather than a text on conflict management. There are already a number of excellent books on conflict management, many of which we cite in this book. So if you want to become an expert on conflict management, we recommend reading them. Our intention here is different: we want leaders to recognize the importance of becoming conflict competent as a means to becoming a better leader. We want to provide them with a basic understanding of what is involved in becoming conflict competent from a personal as well as an organizational standpoint. Finally, we want them to champion change to help their organization improve the way in which conflict is handled so they can experience the many benefits that flow from conflict competence.
Personal Responses to Conflict
Conflict. What do you think or feel when you hear the word? If you are like most other people, you will probably experience some discomfort. The fact is that conflict can involve uncomfortable emotions and threaten relationships.
Leaders are no different. Our organization has trained thousands of leaders over the years, and time and again, they have told us that their most difficult workplace issue is conflict management. Yet as we will see, leaders are the key to improving their organizations’ ability to deal effectively with conflict.
Does your organization handle conflict as well as you would like? Most do not. Poorly managed conflict creates enormous costs in the form of wasted management time, higher turnover, lawsuits, and the like. It can also lower productivity. When people are engaged in destructive conflict, they begin to pull back, stop sharing information, and take fewer risks. The result can be poorer-quality decision making. Lowered morale and strained working relationships can cause stress and sap employees’ energy to focus on being creative and productive.
We do not think it is possible to do away with conflict. People will always have differences in values, goals, principles, and tactics that lead to conflict. The key becomes how they deal with these differences. Our experience suggests that when emotions get the best of people, they often use fight-or-flight types of responses that enflame and prolong conflict. For many people, their first instinct causes them to behave in counterproductive ways. It is as though many of our gut-level responses to conflict no longer serve us well in organizational settings. There are other approaches.
Libraries are full of excellent books on how to control emotions and engage in conflict constructively. If we read and actually acted on their advice, businesses (and the rest of the world) would be much better places. In many ways, effective conflict management is very simple. The types of techniques and behaviors that change conflict from a blaming contest to a collaborative problem-solving exercise are straightforward. In some ways, they seem self-evident, but for the most part, people do not embrace them naturally. As a consequence, organizations continue to suffer the many ills that stem from poorly managed conflict.
We suggest that left alone, the situation will not change. If you try to avoid conflict, it will not go away; it will just fester. If you do not systematically address the way in which your organization deals with conflict, it will continue to endure the ongoing costs of conflict or even experience a crisis (a strike, lawsuit, or media debacle, for example) precipitated by the buildup of unresolved conflict.
We believe that in order for this to change, leaders must engage in improving their own conflict awareness and skills as well as those of their organization. In other words, they need to become conflict-competent leaders. They cannot afford to wait for others to raise the issue. Instead, they must show the way.
This book demonstrates the importance of developing conflict competence as a leadership skill. We share research results that found a strong correlation between effective leadership and constructive engagement in conflict. We want leaders, as well as those who provide leadership and conflict management training, to appreciate the importance of conflict competence.
Most of this book looks at how and what leaders need to do to become personally competent in dealing with conflict. Personal transformation is a crucial first step; without it, their efforts to champion conflict competence in their organization will ring hollow.
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