Conflict Management: A 7-Step Response Process

Conflict management is a remarkably important part of leadership. Even when assets like time and money are in good supply, conflicts can arise almost spontaneously when any stakeholder perceives a threat to his or her status. The basis of an individual conflict might range anywhere from a small misunderstanding to a complete clash of worldviews, and otherwise reliable team members may not be forthcoming with accurate information when it comes to interpersonal strife.

To effectively resolve conflicts and defuse tensions, leaders should have a refined and reliable conflict management process and know when to accommodate, compromise and compete. It’s not easy to determine the right conflict response strategy, so when faced with conflict, a leader should step back to assess an appropriate response. Conflict is not always a negative, and effective management of a response strategy can be beneficial to all.

Let’s consider an effective seven-step process to follow while determining and implementing conflict response strategies.

 1) Start with a Deep Breath
First and foremost, it’s important that a leader be an authoritative — and, to the extent possible, impartial — figure when conflict arises. Of course, managers and executives are human, and they aren’t impervious to feeling overwhelmed, exasperated or disappointed when important team members get into conflict. The initial reaction to the conflict sets the tone, so make sure it’s productive and does not spark defensiveness in others.

2) Understand What’s Really at Stake

One of the most important skills to cultivate in any form of mediation is an understanding of what’s really going on beneath the surface. A conflict that might seem to be over budgeting or schedules could, in fact, be entirely unrelated to obvious causes. Tension can grow between team members without ever being reported, over issues that might seem comparatively minor at first. Thus, fact-finding is essential to ensure a leader’s response is applied to the root of the problem and not its superficial symptoms.

<h2> 3) Reframe the Issue for Shared Values

In mature organizations with clear, shared values, tremendous advantages may be gained in working with people who put aside their personal differences — even when those are serious. In any major conflict, finding shared goals, values or backgrounds is a requirement for moving forward. That doesn’t always mean that those facing the conflict need to work closely together, but they should recognize that the issue threatens their goals and the organization’s.

4) Clarify Decision-Making Processes

When conflict arises, have a clear and transparent decision-making process. This one step is essential and could have dozens of independent sub-steps. Stakeholders need to feel validated in their faith that their legitimate concerns are being taken into account. With a structured decision-making process, it’s clear to everyone that resolution isn’t simply a “popularity contest” or a matter of “he said, she said.”

5) Explore Options

There are many possible responses to every problem. Diplomats have long recognized that a workable compromise is often one that’s mutually unsatisfactory to everyone involved. It’s important not to assume that there are only two roads to take in any conflict. While it’s good practice not to let conflicts fester any longer than necessary, get perspectives from other leaders and let ideas germinate for some time before coming to a conclusion. Consider all of the possible results and unexpected consequences that might arise from a given course of action.

6) Make a Final Decision

Being perceived as decisive often comes down to taking action within a reasonable time after being made aware of a problem. When it’s time for a final decision, communicate the results directly to each person individually. “Ambushing” them with a meeting in which they are expected to bury the hatchet immediately is a high-pressure tactic that is more likely to backfire. When communicating a decision, explore thought processes, but ensure that the end results are fully understood.

 7) Communicate Expectations Clearly

Stakeholders must understand what the final decision means to them: Ambiguity can be highly destructive. To prevent any future flare-ups of a settled matter, the communication plan should provide clarity on next steps and what to avoid. Recurrence of a conflict politicizes and poisons the work environment while presenting thorny disciplinary issues. Expectations are the key to being fair, even when the verdict itself is tough.

Timely leadership intervention can help in many conflict situations, but some conflicts are beyond even the most skilled mediator’s ability to resolve. Don’t feel personally responsible for ensuring every stakeholder works together flawlessly under all conditions; instead, develop and trust in a reasonable process. If basic intercession fails and conflict continues to be a problem, the organization’s strategic goals should guide any future actions.

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Founded in 1948, Brandeis University is an internationally recognized research institution with the intimacy and personal attention of a small liberal arts college. Brandeis University is pleased to offer its M.S. in Project and Program Management (MSPPM) in a convenient online format for working professionals interested in project management.


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