Conflict at work? Yes!

In flexible and innovative organizations, conflicts are more, not less, likely to occur. Looking the other way or sweeping things under the carpet is not a smart strategy. Five ways to tackle conflicts constructively.

The ‘proactive personality’ – that is how science refers to autonomous people who take the initiative. These are people that managers – so they say – like to have in their organizations. They are problem-solvers who do not need to be told how to do their work, who fit in perfectly with the new organizations of this age of self-organization and autonomy.

However, the presence of proactive people increases the likelihood of conflict. After all, they have their own ideas about the work and how it can best be done. They raise questions about various matters, and their ideas do not necessarily coincide with those of their colleagues. Many managers prefer to avoid conflict, and how popular the proactive personalities actually are among their bosses is highly debatable.

Work conflicts are necessary

Ellen Giebels and several of her colleagues decided to investigate the relationship between conflicts and innovation. Giebels is a professor of the psychology of conflict, risk, and safety at the University of Twente. The results of the investigation were recently published – people with a proactive personality are indeed more innovative and, true enough, conflicts play a relatively frequent role in that. The work conflicts, it seems, are the broken eggs that are needed to fry the omelet of innovation.

Constructive conflict management

“Conflicts are inevitable at a time of fewer rules and hierarchies, and of greater diversity,” says Giebels. “It is therefore becoming more and more important that they are tackled effectively.” An essential aspect is that the positive sides of conflicts are recognized – positive aspects such as the realization that there are problems, and the opportunity to learn something about yourself and others. Giebels continues, “It is actually the search for solutions to conflicts that creates innovation.”

This does not alter the fact that conflicts are troublesome occurrences. They can lead to emotions running high and can disrupt working relationships. Below are five tips for constructive conflict management.

1. Look out for the signs

The first stage of conflict management is spotting the problem, or spotting it in good time. “If you notice that something is brewing, you can intervene before things get out of hand,” explains Dick Bonenkamp. Bonenkamp is the founder and director of the Merlijn Groep and Het Conflictwarenhuis, and works as a conflict advisor and mediator.

There are countless signs that could give an indication, such as an increase in sickness absenteeism, or a deadline not reached for reasons that are not clear. Bonenkamp goes on, “Managers usually know the processes well enough. If there are suddenly any discrepancies or irregularities, if often means something is not right. Ignoring signs of this kind can seem to be the easiest option. But that is not generally a good idea.” An open culture, in which managers are aware of what is going on, can be very valuable at such a time.

2. Do not allow the conflict to escalate

Once a conflict has presented itself, then you often see managers turn the other way, says Bonenkamp. The HR department may be brought in – ‘you sort it out’. The more departments are involved, the more the conflict will get out of proportion. Bonenkamp says, “The most important advice I give to managers is that they must have the courage to look for a solution themselves.”

We are brought up to learn that conflicts are negative, by definition. Managers frequently regard any conflict in their team as a source of shame. Bonenkamp: “You need knowledge and wisdom to see the opportunity in a conflict. We should be more aware that conflict is a feature of any organization that is self-renewing. Managers who ‘push’ conflicts away believe they will resolve themselves. Bonenkamp points out, “But they do not resolve themselves. Ignoring them actually makes them worse.”

3. Respond to the emotions

“We often do not know how to handle emotions,” says Sylvia Fennis. As a psychologist and trainer at Dialoogisch, Fennis supports groups who are going through difficult change processes. In a town where a market had to be relocated, for example, she experienced how the resistance of the market stallholders was systematically ignored. At every meeting, they shouted louder and louder, but the representatives of the local council took no notice of their emotions.

Fennis explains, “It was becoming increasingly bitter and ugly, because the stallholders did not feel as though they were being listened to. Their words were dutifully written down and incorporated into a report.” Emotions are a seemingly open-ended phenomenon, says Fennis – we find it difficult to deal with them, and avoid them. It seems safer to ignore such troubling emotions and to restrict ourselves to rational arguments that are more easily controlled. Fennis goes on, “Even though experience shows that if you acknowledge anger and fear and respond to the message rather than just the words, you can take the sting out of a situation in one go. After that, you can make progress.”

4. Ensure fair procedures

At each stage of a conflict, managers must ensure fairness, advises Ellen Giebels of the University of Twente. The parties must believe that the procedures being followed are not putting them at a disadvantage. Giebels continues, “A lot of research has shown that people regard procedural fairness and the way in which they are treated as more important than the outcome of the process. If the result goes against them, they find it easier to put it behind them than if the process leading up to the result was unfair.”

5. Observe the rules of feedback

A cool head is needed in order to really make progress in relation to a conflict, says Giebels. “Choose a quiet moment. Say that you would like to discuss something that is troubling you. And observe the rules of feedback.” In other words, talk about the problem in terms of how it affects you and state how you are experiencing it, that is, what you find difficult. It also means that you are focusing on concrete behavior and giving examples of how you would like to see things done differently. And that you are putting joint interests first, and digging up as little as possible what has gone wrong in the past.

We often know the rules, says Giebels, “but when tensions rise we do exactly the opposite and start pointing the finger.” To move forward from a conflict, trust is essential. Giebels continues, “That means giving the other party the chance to respond. It means listening to each other. And that you do not resort to recriminations.” If there is trust, you can continue to work together even if you conclude that the conflict is not going to be resolved.

Source: This article is part of the ‘Nieuw Leiderschap’ file on This file is from De Baak.

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