Managing Conflicts a Key Leadership Competence

Dr. Arlena Jung

Dealing with conflicts constructively and proactively has always been an important asset and leadership quality. With the increasing volatility of market dynamics and diversity of customer requirements it has become a necessity. In order to deal effectively with project challenges, peak workloads and heterogenous teams exeuctives need to be able to recognize tensions as they arise and find both pragmatic and robust solutions. In short: Agil, high-perfomring teams require leaders with solid conflict resolution skills.

But what exactly does it mean to have "solid conflict resolution skills"? Regardless of context conflict management as a leadership quality can be reduced to three core abilitiey: 1) the ability to take a stand and when necessary assert team interests, 2) the ability to understand differing interests and perspectives both on an emotional and an intellectual level and 3) the ability to make compromises and view differences within the bigger picture.

Finding a good balance between these abilites is in many ways a question of the right mindset. Leaders that see conflicts as an opportunity for achieving goals and improving interpersonal relationships, leaders that trust in their ability to deal effectivly with conflicts as they arise are much more likely to intuitively find a good balance than those who focus on the dangers and risks of conflicts. Understanding what a good balance is means understanding conflict dynamics and having the communication techniques to match.

Cognitive-Emotional Triggers - The Feeding Ground of Conflicts

The specific nature of each individual conflict depends on a wide variety of context factors from individual personality traits to team history and organizational setting.

Despite the fact that no two conflicts are the same the dynamics of conflicts show an astonishing similiarity ....regardless of the personality traits of those involved and the context in which they unfold. How is this possible? Conflicts trigger strong and deeply seated cognitiv-emotional reactions to which none of us are immune. These cognitiv-emotional reactions are the feeding ground for their gradual escalation. As a result conflicts never just disappear. This is, however, precisely what many people and managers hope for. Deciding that tensions between team members are not your problem might temporarily feel releaving. The longterm costs, however, tend to be high,. The longer a conflict remains unresolved the more difficult it becomes to resolve.

If wishful thinking will not make conflicts disappear what then is the remedy for the seemingly tragic selfsustaining nature of conflicts and their propensity to gradually escalate? The answer is in many ways rather simpel: Learning to understand the cognitive-emotional reactions on which conflicts feed and set the ground for a different set of cognitiv-emotional reaction ist the foundation of all robust conflict resultion processes.

Understanding Conflict Dynamics

Understanding conflict dynamics means understanding the cognitiv-emotional triggers of the different phases, how they effect behaviour and what the consequences are in terms of effective conflict resolution skills and techniques.

Prevention as the Most Effective Remedy - Dealing Proactively with Emerging Tensions

A key conflict management competence is the ability to recognize emerging tensions between peers and take action. So: What are common symptoms of emerging tensions? Team members are increasingly uncompromising and increasingly vehement in the presentation of their ideas, opinions and points of view. They begin to dismiss other perspectives and stand points as irrelevant, are demonstratively unable to comprehend their logic or simply overhear them. Team meetings regularly culminate in recurring and repetitive discussions of fundamental questions making effective and solution-oriented decisions impossibel.

Most managers do register these types of tensions. With many other seaminlgy more pressing issues at hand the temptation is, however, to ignore and trivialise them, hoping they will simply go away. Especially in teams where top quality performance and a high degeree of agility in dealing with unexpected project dynamics is required this is rarely a promising strategy. If managers notice the emerging dynamics in this early phase, the probability of a successful solution is very high. Intervention strategies are required to ensure that those involved have the opportunity to clearly state their positions and the interests involved.

The tendency to ignore emerging conflicts also often has to do with a sense of helplessness. Nobody wants to start unpacking complex interpersonal issues if there is no guarantee that they can be repacked, sealed and removed from sight. What we often really want is to pretend they don't exist so we can get back to bussiness as soon as possible. So: What exaclty does it take to deal effectively with emerging tensions and prevent them from turning into fullfledged conflicts? As with so many leadership challenges good conflict managment is first and foremost a matter of mindset. An executive who adresses tension without shaming those involved or giving them the feeling that they are facing a dangerous and untamable monster will already have done a lot to ease the tension. Conflict management compentence means seeing conflict not as a threat but rather as a chance for improving the quality of interpersonal relationships and work standards. An executive with this mindset will automatically transport this attitude to his employees.

Dealing effectively with emerging tensions is, however, also a matter of communication and conflict resolution skills. So: What communication techniques and skills are needed to resolve conflicts? Key at this early stage are three competences: 1) The abilty to create an atmosphere and structure a discussion in which employees are willing to openly voice their perspectives without becoming judgemental or defensive. 2) The ability distinguish between positions and the underlying interests, values and emotions. 3) The ability to facilitate an respectful and constructive discussion of possible solutions or compromises.

Dealing constructively with emerging tensions is in many ways a valuable opportunity for establishing a good working climate. Every constructively resolved conflicts raises the trust, sympathy and goodwill both towards you as well as between the employees themselves. What they learn is that there concerns, interests and perspectives are welcome and that you and the team are able to deal with tensions. Everytime you manage to successfully facilitate the resolution of emerging tensions you help your employees improve their own conflict resolution skills.

De-Escalating Emotionally Charged Conflicts

Conflicts that are not resolved eventually devekop into so-called hot conflicts. What are the symptoms of hot conflicts? Employees alternate between emotionally charged arguments that flame up unexpectedly and mutual avoidance strategies. By now the mutual trust in eachothers honesty and goodwill characteristic of healthy working relationships has been seriously damaged. They now view eachother as opponents. Almost everything the opponent does is viewed as a tactical maneuver designed to gain the upper hand in a power game.

What makes conflict resolution so challenging at this phase is not only it's emotionally intensity. Based on the lack of trust the opponents are increasingly less willing to openly and honestly discuss the real issues. They are convinced that any willingness they show to find a constructive solution or a good compromiss will simply be used against them.

In order to deal effectivly with hot conflits it is crucial create a situation in which employees stop talking about or at eachother and start talking to eachother. This often entails setting up very clear and strict conversation rules. If you succeed in that you will then need considerable skill in descerning what the underlying issues are.

If not trained in dealing professionally with these kind of conflicts you are well adviced to seek some kind of counselling or assistance.

Knowing the Limits of your Conflict Management Skills and Responsibilities

Ongoing and emotionally charged conflicts can escalate to a point where even the most experienced and capable executive will not be able facilitate a lasting and effective resolution.

If the mutually inflicted injuries are too deep a pragmatic solution and good compromise will not suffice to heal what has been damaged and restore a good working relationship. At this point it is the responsibility of a good team leader to recognize the limits of his conflict resolutaion abilities.

This, however, by now means means that he should then leave the afflicted to their own devices. Quite the contrary.

In this situation he has the responsibility of coming to a very difficult decision: Either investing in professional support for conflict resolution process or taking leave from one or more of the employees involved in the conflict.

Konflikte, die noch weiter eskalieren, entfalten nämlich eine Dynamik, welche den Beteiligten und ganzen Organisationen hohe Kosten verursachen können. Die Konfliktparteien entwickeln häufig eine offen feindselige Haltung einander gegenüber. Diese Phase der Konflikteskalation ist durch destruktives Verhalten, die aktive Suche nach Möglichkeiten die gegnerische Partei zu schädigen und verbale wie nonverbale Abwertungen der gegnerischen Partei gekennzeichnet.

The parties to the conflict are working aggressively to form coalitions, to publish their own position at every opportunity and to damage the image of the other. The goal is to win and at the expense of the other. This type of conflict is toxic to the cooperation in the entire team or in the entire department.

Unfortunately, in my job as a coach and consultant, I experience all too often that the responsible people only become active once emerging tensions have escalated into fullfledged conflicts.

In Short

Auf sich gestellt, haben Konflikte eine Tendenz zu eskalieren. Je früher Konflikte als Konflikte erkannt werden und diesen aktiv begegnet wird, umso wahrscheinlicher ist eine konstruktive Lösung, aus der die Beteiligten und damit das Team oder die Abteilung gestärkt herausgehen. Aus Angst, dass die Beziehung es nicht tragen kann, besteht aber häufig eine Hemmschwelle Konflikte als solche zu erkennen und diese zu benennen. Manchmal hat dies auch mit der Sorge zu tun, dass derjenige, der den Konflikt benennt, als der Konfliktverursacher wahrgenommen wird.

Conflict management competence in a team leader means having the confidence to deal proactivly with emerging tensions. This is a question of mindset but also of effective conflict resolution skills.

Conflict Training and Conflict Coaching

We are a team of experienced leadership trainers and conflict coaches with decades of professional experience in the area of ​​conflict management. Feel free to contact us if you need support in dealing with current conflicts or want to improve your conflict management skills.

Find out more about our Konflikttraining sowie unser Conflict Coaching.