Corporate Leadership: Internal disagreements can be business assets

Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:40 pm

TEC (The Executive Committee) resource specialist Edgar Papke has become an instant hit in the TEC community because of his profound insights regarding “conflict as opportunity.”

As CEO or senior executive, you unmistakably set the tone for how conflict is approached and resolved in your business. I know CEOs who detest conflict, refuse to deal with it, delegate it or just sweep it under the rug. Not a good practice.

Others approach conflict with determination and resolve to reach a solution as soon as possible. They take an active role in the process. Still others, quite frankly, are afraid of interpersonal conflict because they don’t want to see hurt feelings. They become conflict “fixers” even though the fix may be worse than the conflict issue itself.

Pape believes that conflict is inevitable in any company and that it’s neither positive nor negative. The behaviors that people exhibit when experiencing conflict are a different matter. They come out fighting, they retreat or flee, or they just plain freeze. But the object of the conflict almost always represents an opportunity. And herein lies the basis for conflict as a business asset.

Here are five ways that conflict can be used by the business leader as an opportunity:

1.    It’s usually an outgrowth of diversity reflecting employees’ perceptions, attitudes, biases, knowledge base, etc. From these differences emerges a perspective that often becomes the best of all worlds. You can shape this if you view conflict constructively.

2.    Conflict can be a personal development resource for the management team, if you as business leader view diversity of opinion as healthy to the effective functioning of the team, and communicate this perspective to the team.

3.    Conflict definitely brings out alternative ways of thinking and behaving. Because it is founded on differences of viewpoint, it almost always results in new options that have not been considered.

4.    People who don’t care or who are just putting in their time don’t really engage in conflict because the experience itself can be painful at the personal level. Bright, energetic, caring people who are committed will engage in conflict because they believe it is right to do so.

5.    Most important, perhaps, is the fact that conflict most often reflects real issues that need to be addressed in the business in order to achieve high performance.

Once a conflict is openly confronted, people tend to exhibit two broad categories of behavior: assertive and operative. Good conflict actually flip-flops between the two.

Assertive behavior has the person in the show-and-tell mode, expressing their position, weighing in with the facts or opinions, etc. Cooperative behavior is the “inquisitive” mode, listening for understanding, trying to understand where the other person is coming from, and so on.

Some people are natural at asserting but not at cooperating, and vice-versa. A key to managing conflict is to be able to identify who’s on first. If either party gets stuck, conflict resolution will occur when they are moved to the alternative position.

This leads to the four basic styles for engaging in conflict:

•    Competing to win. It’s assertive but uncooperative. This is the old win/lose arrangement. It does nothing but serve short-term goals, usually egotistical ones at that.

•    Accommodating to please. It’s unassertive and cooperative. This is the coward’s way out. It does nothing to create opportunities from a conflict event.

•  Negotiating for compromise. This one is better than the first two, and probably where most negotiations conclude. Usually, it entails splitting the differences, agreeing not to disagree anymore, or seeking a middle ground solution. The problem is that each party gives up something, so resentment ensues, and the underlying issue remains after the conflict has been resolved.

•    Collaborative problem solving. It’s both assertive and cooperative, the best of the conflict resolution world. Both parties recognize that by working together in a trusting environment, a solution will be achieved that represents the best interests of both parties. The focus is long term, not short term, and there’s a belief that the solution should serve all constituencies, not just the two parties involved in the conflict.

Resolving conflict by collaboration is obviously easier said than done. In my experience over the years, some CEOs are natural “collaboration seekers” and others won’t budge in this direction. Usually, these are the “my way or the highway” types and, unfortunately, in today’s world of enlightened management, there are still too many of them dotting the business landscape.

But assuming you aren’t in this challenging category, what can you as CEO or senior executive do to demonstrate a conflict-collaborative culture in your business? It is really a matter of communicating with intent, as Papke puts it. Here’s how:

State your intent. Be upfront and articulate how you would like the communication exchange to unfold. Indicate what you want from the relationship and what your interests are.      

Share your “truth.” Stay in the “I” mode as opposed to the “you” mode. Be open with your thinking, the basis for your reasoning and feelings, with the other person. Don’t hold back on sharing your fears and concerns, but do take clear ownership of that part of the issue that applies to you. Make sure that your role in the relationship is mutually accepted.

Ask for their “truth.” Reverse the roles and ask the other person to divulge the same information you have shared.

Create a shared “truth.”

Take the time to discuss where your individual truths come together. Use this as the foundation for seeking a collaborative outcome.

Create commitments. Find ways to make accountable commitments that address the root causes of the conflict. In short, make mutual promises that can be kept and tracked as a normal outcome of the conflict resolution process.

Realizing that conflict is a business opportunity is obviously simpler said than done. But after all, isn’t it worth seizing if that’s what it can become? Until next month, here’s to your good conflict management and resolution.

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