Leveraging the Power of Conflict (Part IV of IV)
by Academy Leadership
Establishing a Win/Win Environment
As mentioned earlier, perhaps the most important competency you need to demonstrate in conflict situations is your ability to establish a win/win environment. This requires involving all parties fully in the negotiations, effective listening, and a degree of compromise. You need to lead the negotiations and encourage the development of alternatives that can satisfy all parties concerned. Effective leaders stay focused on goals and objectives with the belief that optimum outcomes can be achieved only when individuals and teams pull together to pursue common aims.
Establishing a win/win environment begins with having this mindset and ensuring that all others involved in the conflict have it as well. Participants must perceive that each can achieve what they desire. This attitude starts to develop when the focus is on interests rather than positions. Win/win negotiations also require a positive attitude oriented on finding a mutually satisfying agreement. The following suggestions should be helpful in reaching the objective of finding win/win solutions:
- Exercise effective interpersonal skills. Comport yourself in a way that is professional, civil, sensitive, and considerate. Speak clearly and with resolve. Be assertive but not aggressive. Showing sensitivity and consideration is important, but avoid being apologetic. If you give the
sense that you lack resolve, the people on the other side of the table may interpret that as a weakness and try to take advantage.
- Offer respect, trust, and courtesy. You demonstrate self-confidence when you are able to speak respectfully to someone you disagree with. Treating your adversaries well also helps them to identify with you, so that they will more easily understand your negotiating arguments, empathize with your concerns, respect you as a person, and be willing to compromise out of a desire for maintaining a positive long-term relationship with you.
- Keep egos in check. Remind everyone in the negotiations that they should not assume that their
version of the facts is actually the correct one. Seek concurrence on the essential facts and encourage all to genuinely understand the other person on a personal level. Watch for others pretending to be more knowledgeable about the facts and issues than warranted. Question your own knowledge and assumptions. Be on alert that you might be falling into this trap yourself.
- Seek solutions that satisfy everyone's interests. Use brainstorming to develop alternative solutions, remembering that no alternative is discarded or critiqued until all have been generated during the brainstorming process. You must be open to new and different solutions, including those that may satisfy other members of the team more than yourself.
- Identify and record points of agreement and disagreement. Focus the discussion on ways to capitalize on those things people agree on while minimizing or eliminating points of disagreement. For example, if all parties share an interest in producing the most innovative products quickly for clients, focus on this aspect of the problem and attempt to develop mutually acceptable solutions that will accomplish just that. If you and your client disagree on a new pricing schedule, talk about your shared interest in preserving your long-term relationship and downplay your differences of opinion over the details. The key is to structure a mutually acceptable solution that accounts for these differences. For example, a low-cost concession by your company could be a highly advantageous solution for the client, and vice versa. You could develop price schedules based on different economic scenarios, thus minimizing risk for both parties.
When all sides of the conflict are open to winning on some points and compromising or losing on others, they are more likely to buy into a solution they can accept and support. On the other hand, when a clear winner and a clear loser emerge from a negotiation session, hard feelings are likely to result. The loser may undermine the agreed-upon course of action, ensuring that no one wins in the long run. Unfortunately, it is naïve to assume that everyone who talks about win/win solutions is actually committed to playing that way. There will be times when at least one party is playing a negotiation game as if it were win/lose, while putting up an agreeable win/win facade.
When you suspect you may be dealing with such a case, you may feel as though you must protect yourself. But that approach can lead you to act defensively, which only reinforces the very win/lose dynamic you intend to counteract. When faced with such situations, try some of the following suggestions:
- Stay alert to signals that people are approaching the conflict as win/lose. Consciously resist the temptation to follow suit.
- Politely confront the person who may be exhibiting a win/lose attitude. Test the person's perception by saying something to the effect of, "It seems to me that you want to resolve this in a way that benefits your group and that you aren't taking into account the interests of other people involved." This should clear the way for determining the accuracy of your suspicions. If the
perception is confirmed, resist the temptation to get the other person.
- Employ the interpersonal skills addressed earlier to find a solution that resolves the conflict in a win/win style. There still may be miscommunications and false assumptions at the root of the conflict. But also be prepared to withdraw. Start exploring other solutions that don't require the cooperation of the person or group employing the win/lose strategy.
Mimizing Chronic, Recurrent Conflict
In the course of resolving a conflict, members of opposing sides can respond in one of three ways. They may:
- Compromise or collaborate amicably by turning their disagreements into agreements.
- Compromise and, while fully supporting the final agreed-upon resolution, continue to privately disagree and hold to their prior positions.
- Compromise but, while withholding their full support for the final agreed-upon resolution, continue to disagree in ways that are disruptive to the organization. The original conflict may appear to be resolved, but it isn’t. The conflict becomes a chronic, recurrent source of trouble in the organization.
The strategies discussed thus far can help decrease the harmful effects of conflict, but they don’t necessarily address the goal of preventing ongoing conflict. You must always seek ways to keep conflict at a reasonable level if you are to benefit from its advantages and at the same time protect the organization from its harmful effects. You also need to find ways to keep conflict at an optimum level to allow the organization to remain focused on achieving its goals.
To minimize the damaging repercussions of recurring conflict on organizational efforts, follow these guidelines:
- Identify the individuals, teams, or business units that may be frequently in conflict.
- Determine when and over what issues these entities disagree. For example, does it appear they are in conflict over the same resources, is there disagreement over how to achieve goals, or is there a fundamental difference of opinion about which goals are most important to achieve?
- Objectively assess the perspective from each party’s point of view to gain an understanding of why each behaves the way they do when they are in conflict.
- Determine if there is a need to bring the competing parties together to discuss the issues. If so, you should facilitate this session and begin by explicitly stating that the point of the meeting is to find a solution that will largely satisfy all parties and benefit the organization at large.
- Have each party state their interests on the issue and describe why they believe they are in competition with the other party. Your paramount responsibility in this part of the session is to manage the level of tension. You will need to monitor and coach both parties in their active listening skills.
- Remind the competing parties that the problem itself is their common enemy. Encourage them to focus on fixing the problem rather than fixing blame. Once you set the expectation for them to
attack the problem, and not each other, it will be easier to come to a mutually acceptable solution.
- Engage the group in a problem-solving session to determine ways they can work together to achieve mutual goals, eliminate the source of the current conflict, and minimize conflict in the future. You need to play the role of facilitator and coach in order to encourage collaboration and compromise.
Differences leading to conflict naturally occur when good people, teams, and business units try to satisfy their needs, act according to their beliefs, adhere to their values, and pursue their goals. As the pace of change increases, the potential for increased levels of conflict rises as well. However, conflict can serve as a spark to challenge assumptions, inspire dialogue, and initiate new ways of thinking and operating. When leaders appropriately manage conflict and learn to leverage its benefits, conflict can become a positive and motivating force for success.
Leaders vary in their assumptions about conflict. Some feel conflict is always harmful and try to avoid it. Others deal with it as a necessary evil. The most productive assumption to hold about conflict is that it is inherently neither good nor bad, but positive outcomes can arise from conflict if it is managed well.
The most desirable solution-oriented strategy for conflict management is collaboration. By creatively engaging the problem, a collaborative solution can be generated in which everyone is a winner and everyone is better off. This collaboration strategy is more time-consuming than other approaches but it has the added benefit of helping build cohesion and morale. A secondary solution-oriented strategy for conflict management is compromise, in which each party gives something up in order to reach an agreement. The downside of compromise is that parties may regret what they had to give up, which is not the case with collaboration.
Leaders should always try the collaborative approach to managing conflict first, and move to compromise only when absolutely necessary. The four steps of conflict management are:
- Approach the conflict as a win/win situation.
- Distinguish between misunderstandings and conflict.
- Focus on interests rather than positions.
- Communicate clearly.
The most important thing you can do as a leader in a conflict situation is establish a win/win environment by exercising your interpersonal skills, offer respect, trust, and courtesy to all parties, keep egos in check, seek solutions that satisfy everyone’s interests, and identify the critical points of both agreement and disagreement. All the while, you must be ready and willing to deal with participants who continue to approach the situation from a win/lose perspective. You must be ready to seek solutions that remove these parties from the negotiation.
For all its potential benefits, conflict can be destructive in the workplace if conflicts continually recur between people or groups. In order to help resolve recurrent conflict, it is important to remind the competing parties that they are not enemies, that the problem itself is their common enemy. When parties in conflict can see the problem rather than each other as the prime obstacle to resolution, it will be easier to come to a mutually acceptable solution.