Dealing With Organisational Conflict

Mar 10, 2014 12 Min Read
organisational conflict
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How to Deal With Organisational Conflict

Let me begin by stating the obvious: We are all different from each other. I once did an exercise with a group of about 100 people where each person had a piece of A4 paper and were given clear instructions to fold the paper and tear it in a certain way.

At the end of the exercise, they were told to unfold their piece of paper and to observe the unique end result. I then offered a RM100 reward to any two people in the room who had their piece of paper exactly the same as the other person.

The results? My RM100 was spared. Yes, it was a set up! I have done this many times before and know that no one will ever take my money away.

Why is it that I could not find two people out of one hundred who had a similar end result although everyone listened to the same set of instructions? Answer: Simply because I had one hundred different interpretations from that one set of instructions that was given.

We all perceive and interpret information differently. It is these differences that, if not nurtured positively, will breed conflict.

Organisational conflicts are common. All healthy teams go through certain team stages and dynamics. This is commonly known as the forming-storming-norming-performing team stages.

The forming stage is a stage of uncertainty where team members are uncertain about roles, rules and expectations.

Once they begin familiarising with one another, they enter the storming phase where they are now more open and honest to the point of getting into conflicts over goals and personalities.

Although this storming phase is a time of anxiety, it is not to be avoided. The team needs to engage in a healthy way amidst strife in order for individuals to normalise with one another’s expectations. This is where working styles are agreed on and adjusted and processes are set up.

Finally after a season of normalising, the team begins to perform. That is where they begin to work positively, creatively and productively together.

Each of the above stages is critical in ultimately building effective teams. As you may recognise, out of all these stages, the storming or conflict stage is probably the most painful phase in organisational dynamics.

What is organisational conflict? Organisational conflict occurs when interdependent people perceive interference from one another as they pursue their goals.

There are basically four fundamental causes for organisation conflicts. These are:

  1. Weak organisational processes
  2. Lack of clarity in roles and responsibilities
  3. Unhealthy interpersonal relationships
  4. Unclear vision and direction

Each of these, if not addressed promptly and delicately, can eventually lead to an organisational breakdown.

Resolving workplace conflicts is a serious matter. Once conflicts are identified, they must never be “swept under the carpet” as unresolved conflicts breed more conflicts. It’s like cancer! They will spread if timely intervention is not offered.

Great leaders always have a healthy view of conflicts. They understand that it is part and parcel of organisational dynamics and they embrace it with open hearts. In any conflict situation, the leader involved can assume the following five roles:

  1. WARRIOR: Leaders need courage to address conflicts head-on. When they fail to do so, they frustrate team members and their credibility is questioned.
  2. SAINT: Leaders need to have a humble and forgiving heart. Failure to do so makes them incapable to lead with integrity as they themselves are consumed with anger and bitterness.
  3. FRIEND: Leaders need to have a strong sense of empathy towards others. If not, they will not see a need to address conflicts or will just “bull-dose” their way without considering the feelings of others.
  4. COACH: Leaders need to recognise that it is in times of conflict that there is the most opportunity to coach others towards change. Failure to do so encourages a “free flow” of negative energy that can spiral into more conflicts.
  5. STUDENT: Leaders can learn the most about themselves, their teams and their organisation in times of conflicts. Failure to do so is missed opportunity to develop themselves and their organisation.

There is no easy solution on how we should respond to conflict situations. Each conflict is unique in its own way and needs to be interpreted in its proper context.

According to conflict management experts, Kenneth W. Thomas and Ralph H. Kilmann, there are five conflict management styles we can adopt in managing conflict scenarios. These are:

1. Avoiding

This is when you simply avoid and choose not to engage in the issue. You know you are not going to help the other party reach their goals and you are not assertively pursuing your own.

This works when the issue is trivial or you have no chance of winning, or when you feel that the “battle” is not worth fighting for. It can also be effective when the issue, if out of hand, would be very costly, or when the atmosphere is emotionally charged and you need to calm down the intensity.

In general, avoiding is not a good long-term strategy and using this too often will result in more dissatisfaction from certain parties.

2. Accommodating

This is when you cooperate to a high-degree and it may be at your own expense where it actually works against your own goals and objectives. This approach is effective when the other party is the expert or has a better solution.

This approach is also wise when you recognise that the other party has clearly more to lose and you choose to give-in. This style is also a good strategy to consider in view of preserving future relations with the other party.

3. Compromising

This is the scenario where neither party really achieves what they want as a result of a give and take. The end result is either a “lose-lose” or “small win-small lose”. This requires a moderate level of assertiveness and cooperation.

It may be appropriate for scenarios where you need a temporary solution or where both sides have equally important goals.

Conflict resolvers must avoid falling into the temptation of compromising all the time as an easy way out, especially when collaborating could produce a better solution.

4. Collaborating

This is also a proactive approach where both parties collaborate and focus on working together to resolve the situation. When authentic dialogues take place, more ideas are generated and consensus can be reached at the end of the day.

This style pushes you to break free from the “lose-lose” or “win-lose” paradigm in order to pursue a “win-win”.

This can also mean re-framing the situation to create a bigger space for everyone’s ideas. The downside of this style is that it requires a high-degree of trust and reaching a consensus can require a lot of time and effort to get everybody to synthesise their ideas.

5. Dominating

This is the “win-lose” approach. You act in a very assertive way to achieve your goals without seeking to cooperate with the other party. Very often, the other party will be at the losing end.

This approach may be appropriate when dealing with strict company policies or guidelines. It is also effective for emergencies when time is of essence or when you need fast decisive action to be taken and people are aware and support the approach.

In general, most people have a preferred or “default” style of managing conflicts. This is also affected by personality tendencies. For example, a Type “A” more domineering personality style person will be more inclined to dominate in managing conflicts while a Type “B” more complying person may choose to compromise or even avoid conflict situations.

Leaders need to have self-awareness and recognise their own default patterns. Once they are aware of their own patterns, they can evaluate whether they are working for them or they can explore alternatives.

Leaders also need to recognise that there is no one best style in managing conflicts as it is dependent on the context of the conflict.

By using a context-based approach, leaders can choose more effective conflict management styles and test their effectiveness for their unique situations.

Although we can identify different styles of conflict management, we also need to recognise that when the rubber meets the road, managing conflicts is a delicate matter.

One reason is that at the end of it all, we are dealing with people. This is the biggest challenge of all. Here are eight principles that can be adopted in managing conflicts:

1. Have the right attitude

Your attitude is your outlook and how you choose to view the situation from your “mind’s eye”. If you have a very negative mindset over the conflict and the people involved, chances are you will react very negatively as well, thus making matters worse.

In a conflict scenario, we need to make attitude adjustments. Although you may be frustrated, upset and even angry, suspend yourself from exhibiting such feelings. Instead, choose to be open and humble to view the conflict more positively and focus on the solutions instead of your frustrations.

Famous American psychologist William James states that “whenever you’re in conflict with someone, there is one factor that can make the difference between damaging your relationship and deepening it. That factor is attitude”.

2. Meet face to face

If possible, have a face-to-face meeting with the people involved in the conflict to resolve the issues. Avoid phone calls as they often dilute the quality of the conversations you need to have in a conflict scenario.

Emails where various parties are addressed can be disastrous as multiple communication lines often create more confusion and misunderstanding.

3. Meet on mutual ground

Meeting on mutual ground is a psychological technique that can be adopted. Either party will not feel threatened that they are entering “enemy” home ground to negotiate for a resolution.

A mutual ground can be in a meeting room, at another colleague’s office or even at a restaurant if appropriate. Because of the setting of the mutual ground, parties involved can be more open and less defensive in their discussions.

4. Ensure the right people are present

One of the most frustrating situations in conflict resolution is when key stakeholders are not present in those meetings.

It is imperative that key stakeholders who have the right information and who are authorised to make certain decisions are present in order to navigate a solution.

Always insist that the right people are present. If they can’t make it, it’s better to postpone the meeting rather than to waste time in an unproductive discussion.

5. Be factual and not emotional

In all conflict situations, emotions are involved because humans are emotional beings. Hence, conflict resolution can be high in drama. Emotions are not wrong, but when attempting to resolve conflicts, the more objective we are, the closer we will be in resolving those conflicts.

One effective way to inject objectivity into these situations is to present facts. For example, it’s more helpful to say, “the customer feedback form states that the delivery was two days late” instead of “your guys are not doing their jobs!”

6. Avoid finger-pointing

This is the big “no-no” in conflict resolution. The moment you begin to assign blame to another party, you have just declared war! People will have little choice but to be defensive and then fight back when you blame them.

They will always want to justify their actions and then assign blame back to you for the breakdown that has occurred. While it may be true that the issue may heavily rest on one party, it is certainly not helpful if the angle of the conflict resolution conversation is headed that direction.

Instead, begin by stating the facts and have a dialogue on how to bring about a solution. If needed, revisit the “flaws” of people and/or processes separately.

7. Refrain from harsh words

A famous proverb states that “life and death are in the power of the tongue”. How true. Words have such power to either bring hope and healing or destruction and strife. We need to recognise that words will trigger emotions, both positive and negative. All it takes is one harsh word in a conflict resolution dialogue and all “hell will break loose”. Instead, we need to exercise much self-control and learn to be more positive and gracious with our words. Famous author Max Lucado says that “conflict is inevitable, but combat is optional”.

8. End on a positive note

Having conflict resolution dialogues is both stressful and draining. A good leader never allows a meeting to end with people in the room feeling more confused or that they have “lost the battle”.

If no complete resolution can be made in that one meeting, then focus on the positives, for example that you were able to agree on some aspects of the problem or affirm the folks involved that their honesty in sharing their views is appreciated.

Then move on if necessary to agree on next steps, for example, new information that needs to be gathered or others that you suggest who need to be involved in the next meeting.

Ensure everyone leaving the meeting feels that they have accomplished something and is moving one step ahead in resolving the conflict.

Conflict is tough. Nobody likes it. It damages relationships and can bring organisations towards destruction. However, we cannot escape conflict as it is simply part of life and phases where both people and organisations go through.

The big question is not if it will happen, but when it happens what will be our response. Breakthrough leaders embrace and manage conflicts effectively.

They take advantage of it and see it as an opportunity to springboard their teams and organisation to a new level of effectiveness. Conflicts… bring it on!

Keep in touch with how your employees are feeling with technology like Happily (or Budaya for those from Indonesia). This app is an amazing engagement app built for organisations to drive engagement amongst employees. It has amazing analytics and also provides activities for employees to be fully immersed in the organisation's culture and values. To find out more, click here or email

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Eric Lau is part of Leaderonomics' extensive faculty and is a strategic leader with a relentless belief in people. His personal mission is to inspire and influence others to rise up to their full potential and calling. Eric is a leadership consultant and trainer and regularly leads training sessions in the areas of leadership, management and personal development.

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