Embrace conflict

Culture  Leadership
21 September, 2015

Don’t sweep disagreement under the rug – air it out constructively

Many times, team members mention to me that they disagree with something that a colleague has done or said. Often when I enquire whether the team member has given the feedback to the colleague, the response is a nonplussed ‘no’. Too often, we bottle things inside us or talk behind people’s backs. The intent is to not upset the proverbial apple cart, as they say and avoid any form of conflict.

Last week, I had written on the need for us to become more collaborative leaders. Key to enabling collaboration is encouraging healthy disagreements and effectively managing conflict.

So, in my message today, I want to focus on how to embrace conflict, to engage in more open and constructive dialogue, and build a more collaborative culture in our company.

Like it or not, conflict isn’t something that you can simply wish away. Nor is it something that you should turn a blind eye to. It is very much a part of our relationships and culture at work – you are constantly grappling with differing opinions, approaches, priorities and timelines, both within and across teams. And at times, this could lead to dissonance, and perhaps even conflict. Simply because people can’t and shouldn’t agree on everything. And the more diverse we become, the more differences we will probably have.

Ironically enough, in many ways, this is exactly what we want to foster – a culture where people can engage in constructive dialogue and push each other’s thinking. It is how we encourage disruptive thinking and innovation, challenge the status quo, and raise our own personal bars.

If you think about it, the problem with conflict isn’t really the conflict itself. It’s how to manage it. And as leaders, it is very important for you to foster the right culture, where there is productive debate and healthy tension. With your colleagues, you need to be open and transparent. If you disagree with a colleague or peer, you should try to address it by focusing on the issue and finding a solution – without bad-mouthing her or playing blame games. With your team members, you should encourage them to freely speak their minds. At the same time, you must ensure that debates don’t drag on unnecessarily – it is important that conflicts don’t impede agility; so, the decision making and accountability should be clear. And you should ensure that conflicts are actually managed with people respecting each other views even if they disagree.

So, here are eight suggestions to better manage conflict:

1. Introspect on your approach

Start with yourself. Are you someone who typically avoids conflicts? Or are you someone who will call out a disagreement and take it head on? Do you tend get more emotional during disagreements? Or do you stick to the facts? Are you empathetic? Is getting your task completed more important than managing a relationship? Do you let your ego get in the way of a resolution? What are your boundaries? What are your biases? Be honest with yourself. The more you learn about yourself, the easier it will be to manage situations of conflict when they arise.

2. Understand what you are in conflict over

What are you disagreeing over? Is it the approach? Or the goal itself? The way deliverables are being managed? Is this over turf issues? What you think you are disagreeing over may not even be the real cause for contention. Sometimes, it may not even be about the two of you. It may just be the situation or the organisational context that you have been placed in. So think about that, before you draw conclusions about who is to blame here.

3. Try to see it from the other person’s perspective

If you’re going to make this work, then you need to make an effort to understand where the other person is coming from. What is she like and what is her approach most likely to be? If this is someone who you know and interact with, then use your own judgment. If you aren’t quite sure, ask around (but make it discreet). How do you work together? Do your styles inherently not complement each other? Now put yourself in her shoes. She must have a reason for reacting the way she is. What could it be? What would yours be if you were in her shoes?

4. Prepare for the conversation

If you are ready to have a conversation, plan for it. For starters, ask yourself what is it that you want to achieve from the discussion. Is it outstanding results? Is it a long term partnership? And how far are you willing to go? Enough to let go of your ego and accept a compromise?

Getting the when and where to meet right, are also important. You want to be able to do this at a time when both of you are open to a discussion, not when you are still upset. That would only cause more unrest. At the same time, if this is holding up deliverables, you may need to weigh the consequences and broach a conversation earlier than you would have otherwise. Finding a private space where you can do this in person would be ideal.

It may be a good idea to rehearse what you will say. How you start this sets the tone. Make it about the issue, not the person. Try and envision the different turns your conversation could take. But be flexible about this, because you may start with one approach but need to move on to another, given how your conversation goes.

5. Find a resolution

Your focus should be to come to an agreement. There isn’t much point in raking up all that happened and blaming each other, after a point. You need a solution. One which works for both of you. And more importantly, is in the larger interest of the company. Be flexible. Explore multiple options and ask the other person for opinion. Together, decide on what your options are and how to evaluate them before you come to a conclusion. And stick by it. So, hold each other accountable if you don’t honour the commitment.

6. Ask for help if you need it

Sometimes, despite your best efforts, you may find yourself frustrated that things just aren’t moving. You seem to be going round in circles with no resolution. Sure, you can try giving it more time. But sometimes, getting advice and mentoring can be helpful. And if you need it, ask for it. It could even be a situation where you find that this conflict goes beyond the two of you – that it has larger organisational causes and impact. And getting more guidance here will help.

7. Know when to walk away

Don’t try and work on a disagreement when you’re upset. Instead, take time off. Sometimes, you just want to get it all off your chest. The easiest way around that is to go full throttle. But it will only cause more upset. So, take a pause. Find a friend or colleague you trust and vent. Let off some steam. It will help you think more clearly. Go for a walk. Do something that makes you happy. When you’re calmer, you’re more likely to be able to talk through and find a resolution that works for both of you.

8. Try to get over it

Once you have found a way forward, focus on it. And genuinely, try and get over the disagreement. Work on rebuilding your relationship and mutual trust and respect. Provide each other feedback. Keep communication channels open. Sometimes a joint project can help. Sometimes getting to know each other more informally works better.

Managing conflict as a leader 

Glenn Llopis, in his Forbes article 4 Ways Leaders Effectively Manage Employee Conflict, talks about how leadership is not a popularity contest, but instead involves developing potential, both for individuals as well as the organisation. A big part of this is knowing how to manage conflict. Either way, with how business priorities are evolving and the correlation between high-performing companies and the willingness to dissent, managing conflict is becoming an increasingly important skill for any leader. Being able to identify this and intervene, so as to turn what could be potentially hostile into a meaningful exchange, will be much appreciated.

Try following these five principles:

  1. Know when to intervene– Sometimes, it is best that your team members sort out their smaller disagreements on their own. In fact, you should encourage this. You need to be able to judge when the situation calls for you to pitch in. You have to be careful that conflicts don’t keep things open ended or end up delaying decisions.
  2. Understand your team members– Different people will react to situations in different ways. To be able to understand this, you need to forge a deeper understanding of your team members as individuals.
  3. Be okay with differences– Role model behaviour. Encourage people to speak up. And be okay with them having a different point of view than your own.
  4. Don’t pull rank– Even if people do respond to it, they won’t do so for long. And it can’t be a lasting solution.
  5. Call it out– If you see conflicts becoming more pronounced and spiralling out of control, then confront it. Don’t wait for this to get more complicated.

Remember there is time for debate and disagreements, and then there is time when we need to act. Once a decision has been made, you need to make sure that even if you disagree, we all need to march to the same tune and ensure that we focus on execution.

As leaders, we need to walk the talk on embracing conflict. Be honest with yourself and your team members. This won’t be easy or comfortable to start with, but if we want to foster a truly open, innovative culture at Godrej, then this is something that we need to get right.

I look forward to your thoughts and suggestions.

Comments

  • Tejwansh Singh Bedi says:

    Dear Sir,

    Amazing thoughts, very relevant for all of us. Will try to imbibe them for better conflict management and embrace conflict.

    Thanks once again.

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