Are You Managing Conflict or Is Conflict Managing You?

The Jennifer Nash Newsletter

Many people dislike conflict and go to great lengths to avoid it. In doing so, people let conflict manage them, which often manifests in physical and mental health challenges. But have you ever considered that managing conflict could be healthy? 

Even more surprising, it can improve collaboration, expand communication, and strengthen performance. I can explain using the example of my friend Chloé.

Chloé is a people leader in the insurance industry who is all too familiar with workplace conflict. When she took over her current role, her direct reports consistently challenged her expertise, were publicly condescending, and physically intimidated her. 

This tension had serious consequences. Chloé’s blood pressure was up while team performance was down. The team’s project was off-track and at high risk of failing.

Chloé used three strategies to proactively manage the conflict. 

Clear Communication

Chloé met with each team member in person. She explained that these challenging, demeaning, and threatening behaviors were not aligned with her or the company’s values.  She followed up the in-person meeting with an email reiterating her key points. In the email, she asked her direct reports to share one behavior they would commit to change – and describe how they would change it – going forward. 

Firm Boundaries

Chloé set clear boundaries for physical space and demonstrated the appropriate distance. She let each team member know it was improper to breach her physical space when they disagreed with her, were upset, or wanted to emphasize their point. Since some of her team members were from foreign countries with different cultures and customs, they weren’t aware of what was acceptable in corporate America. 

Agile Leadership 

Chloé’s tendency to soften what she considered an unpleasant message was part of the problem. She adapted her style and used more direct language to lessen ambiguity. She removed ‘if’ and ‘would’ from her requests. Pro tip: This also eliminated the choice of complying

Almost immediately Chloé noticed positive changes. The frequency of undesirable behaviors decreased while mutual respect, collaboration, and communication increased. Her team worked together more effectively to deliver the project early, under budget, and within scope.

Unfortunately, Chloé’s experience is not unique. Workplace conflict costs companies more than $359 billion annually, per CPP’s research. The data show that failing to address workplace conflict has significant negative impacts on human beings and organizational performance.

Consider managing, rather than avoiding, conflict when you need to build psychological or physical safety, improve communication, or reduce ambiguity. Managing conflict at work isn’t always feasible, but in some instances may result in higher productivity and performance. 

Take care,

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