It sometimes amazes me how much energy, time and resources are being wasted on unnecessary conflicts. Projects are delayed because the stakeholders are not speaking to one another, e-mails are left unanswered because “how dare they?!”, critical information is withheld in a vain hope to reach some relative advantage, but in the end – everyone loses when company begins to lay-off people it cannot employ anymore. So today I’d like to talk about how we deal with conflicts and about the pitfalls that are awaiting us in this complex task.
When talking about conflicts, the most basic thing we have to understand is that because we all live in a competitive environment – conflicts are prone to emerge on a constant basis. They have become even more frequent lately, because living in a time of crisis increases the levels of stress, anxiety and frustration, which naturally leads to radicalization of attitudes.
To be sure, organizations are ready to put more resources in order to prepare their employees for dealing with conflicts, but in my experience – the impact of Conflict Resolution trainings is usually lower than expected. During the training itself we may allow ourselves with the trainer’s help to rely more on each other’s good will and on our ability to withdraw from initial positions and compromise, however, once we are out of the training session, all the competitive rules of the real world are back there again and to our disappointment we find that very few of the learned tenets of Conflict Resolution can be actually applied. This is not necessarily due to the limitations of the trainings (some of them are actually pretty good), but rather due to the complexity of the real-life situations. The vast difference between the controlled environment of the training and the real, emotionally charged conflict situation (sometimes aggravated by the prospect of real losses) suggest that it’s somewhat unrealistic to expect an immediately successful utilization of Conflict Resolution tools without their proper understanding.
The truth is that the existing tools and techniques of Conflict Resolution are known for some time and have been engaged with a different degree of success. What I find the most crucial to discuss is what is the degree of expected success for every technique?
We all have our preferences about how to approach conflict situations that we have developed since childhood. Our natural tendency is to prefer what we have been working with the longest, even if it wasn’t always the most beneficial way of action. The overall rate of success in solving problems/conflicts depends on how versatile is your toolbox. One facet of knowing when to use what strategy in Conflict Resolution is to understand the real price for utilizing each one. As everything else in life, it all comes with a price, but knowing the differences between prices, you can “buy smarter” 🙂
So let’s discuss the existing Conflict Resolution techniques as they appear in the PMI best practices:
Avoiding – retreating from the situation of actual or potential conflict
Accommodating – emphasizing areas of agreement rather the areas of difference
Compromising – searching for solutions that bring some degree of satisfaction to all parties
Forcing – pushing one’s viewpoint forward at the expense of others: offers win – lose solutions
Collaborating – incorporating multiple viewpoints and insights from different perspectives; leads to consensus and commitment
Confronting/Problem solving – treating conflict as a problem to be solved by examining alternatives
The list seems pretty comprehensive, but how do you choose the best technique for every conflict situation? Is there a general parity of usefulness between the different items or should some be preferred above others?
Let’s try to answer these questions by looking at every technique more closely:
Avoiding – we are not very good at estimating how well and for how long we can avoid the problem. Just postponing the resolution, like not coming to a meeting to avoid discussion, not answering a call or an e-mail, breaking off the contact can dilute our anxiety for some time, but in the end it solves nothing. Constant avoidance will surcharge to a toll we may not be prepared to pay in the future. Avoiding conflicts, as the only technique, guarantees failures.
Accommodating – you need to make sure that once those conversations are over, further actions are made to support the agreement, in order to avoid the temporariness of effect, similar to the limitation of trainings we’ve discussed above. Conflict doesn’t end with conversation; performing an immediate follow-up action as a sign of good will is not just a useless historical tradition, but a tool to see that the resolution of all sides is real. In some cases it might be an instant practical action based on new understanding, in others it can be something as small as an e-mail to summarize what was agreed upon by everybody.
Forcing – here once again, our ability to estimate what we really gain or lose is not as good as we want to believe. A victory in one argument is not an achievement in relation to overall campaign’s goal, so we need to be careful when choosing to overpower others (as well as when estimating our mere ability to overpower). On a grand scale, things can look very different from our inside view of a standalone situation. Think about it: how many wars were started by the side that actually lost them?
Compromising– here I’d like to draw your attention to what REALLY happens when we choose to compromise. Compromise practically means that everyone loses in regard to their initial stance, and when people lose even a bit, the reality of things is that everyone feels like a loser, even if we gained something along the way too. We remember what we lost more than what we gained. In a long run, this approach, which for some unpractical reasons has become very popular, is not as efficient as we want it to be. The value of compromise as a tool is highly overrated. You may use it, but remember to emphasize the gains so they will be remembered as well.
Collaboration – when not being done properly this method has a propensity to turn into compromise. In order to get to collaboration the conflict itself needs to be dissolved or resolved; otherwise you’ll be still dealing with opponents and not partners. Collaboration is practical when all parties have one goal and acknowledge it as such. To reveal the commonality and finding a way to incorporate multiple views is the key to successful collaboration.
Confrontation – treating conflict as a problem is the bravest approach to its resolution. There are several misconceptions here that prevent us from using this tool in the most efficient way. Some people avoid confrontation only due to misunderstanding of what it means and being fearful to be labelled as uncooperative. Others think confrontation means overpowering and never agreeing to any conditions, which is why so many negotiations go south. However, what a really successful confrontation means is confronting not the other parties, but the problem itself. By treating the conflict as a problem you turn it into a rare opportunity to find its root cause, thus preventing many other problems down the road you’d have met had you not chosen confrontation as your approach.
Now that we know more about every Conflict Resolution approach, we may actually rate their preference for us regardless of our personal disposition towards any one of them.
Try not to Avoid the problems as they will come back to haunt you; be careful when trying to Force your opinion or going for a Compromise because these approaches do nothing to relieve the tension; you may try Accommodating or Collaborating, while being aware of possible pitfalls, but there is nothing like a Confrontation of the problem itself in order to resolve the conflict it causes.
To sum up: in order to manage conflicts properly one needs to clearly understand the goals and perspectives of all involved parties and have a realistic view of possible consequences of different conflict outcomes. This means that regardless of your actual approach, you always need to know how to collaborate in order to confront.