Last week it happened again. A conflict at the office, nothing really dramatic, however, it sticks in my head like one of those earworms. For me, like for most people, conflict used to be something I’d rather avoid. Luckily, I discovered a while ago that there are better ways to deal with conflict and all I had to do was to change my perception.

Suddenly, conflict was no longer associated with difficult discussions, unpleasant negotiations and interpersonal problems. Instead, I saw conflict as an opportunity, an opportunity to find better solutions and an opportunity to improve relationships.

How often do we bargain over position rather than focus on interest and mutual gains? Separating people from the problem opens up infinite space for possibilities; when we put this principle in practice we can apply one, or a combination, of five conflict resolution strategies.

  • Dominating a conflict will only achieve the dominator’s position in full, may prevent an innovative thinking process and will definitely leave the other party as loser. It’s the classical win-lose situation.
  • Compromising may not necessarily damage the relationship but it achieves nobody’s position or interests in full.
  • Avoiding the conflict usually doesn’t resolve it at all; it only postpones the issue, which in most cases makes a resolution even harder. The cost of avoiding conflict or difficult conversations is significantly higher than resolving the matter immediately.
  • Accommodating can be an appropriate strategy; however it will only satisfy the concerns of the other party in full.
  • Collaborating is clearly the most beneficial approach to problem-solving; it requires the participants to forget the competitive win-lose thinking and to envision an outcome which achieves all interests in full. Collaboration requires the conflicting parties to be highly assertive as well as co-operative.

It’s important to understand that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to conflict management. Which strategy to use is dependent on the situation, the source of the conflict and your desired outcome. However, collaborating should be your choice of preference, the benefits of a truly synergistic experience clearly outweighs the efforts in the short as well as long term.

With the notion of conflict as a constructive proxy to better solutions and improved relationships, one could argue that conflict should actually be stimulated rather than prevented. Yes and no, it depends on the situation and the individual’s perception towards conflict. Yet, the preconditions for constructive conflict are respect, individual differences (otherwise no conflict), independent and critical thought and a common purpose of all participants.

I believe organisations which meet these conditions can prosper if they create a culture where conflict is seen as a welcome opportunity, Associate Professor and MBITM director Ken Dovey calls this a “Fighting Culture”.

As we all know, culture eats strategy for breakfast, but we also know that culture is not created over-night. Many people I speak with say that cultural change should be induced by our leaders; I somewhat disagree with that, culture is the sum of individual’s actions and behaviours, therefore, cultural change needs to start with the individual, regardless of rank.

But let’s deal with culture in my next blog post, for now I’m happy that my tendency to avoid conflicts is history and instead, equipped with the right conflict management strategies, I transform conflict into better solutions and improved relationships.