5 Pitfalls That Make Workplace Conflicts Worse

Guest post by Peter T. Coleman and Robert Ferguson:

Great leaders are not afraid of conflict. They put it to work.

Conflict in an organization is a lot like fire. When it sparks, it can intensify, spread and lead to pain, loss, and irreparable damage. It can distract, distance, derail, and occasionally destroy opportunities and relationships. It makes most people anxious, and as a result it is often mishandled and made worse. It’s especially costly in today’s work environments where 25% to 40% of managers’ time is spent mired in conflict with aggrieved board members, supervisors, clients, peers and subordinates.

But if managed well, conflict can work for you and your organization. Constructive disagreements enhance creativity, encourage honesty, and lead to better problem solving. Great leaders know this and learn the skills it takes to make conflict work. It takes skill and wisdom to manage and resolve difficult conflicts in the workplace. But even if you feel frustrated when you fail to completely resolve the conflicts that burn around you, there are several things you can avoid in order to prevent conflicts from getting worse, and to turn them into something positive.

Avoid these pitfalls:

1. Treating all conflicts as the same. If you treat all conflicts the same way, you will fail at most of them. Our research has identified seven distinct conflict situations, depending on your answers to these three key questions:

· Is the other party cooperative or competitive? (In other words, to what extent do our goals overlap?)

· Who has more power? (Do you have less power than someone with whom you disagree, or more?)

· How much do I need the other party to achieve my goals? (Or, what can I get done without depending on others?)

The seven situations that those questions help you identify are Compassionate Responsibility, Command and Control, Cooperative Dependence, Unhappy Tolerance, Independence, Partnership, and Enemy Territory. Each situation requires a different approach, and diagnosing the situation correctly leads to the most effective strategy.

2. Ignoring power differences. Most leaders (and consultants) overlook the full significance of how power differences affect conflict. Whether you have more power than the other party, or less, it takes additional skills to get to the real issues and achieve your goals. If you have less power, you risk overstepping your bounds or inviting abuse. If you have more power, you risk eliciting dishonesty or sabotage from your supervisee. Ignoring power differences, and lacking a strategy for them, can render standard conflict resolution methods ineffective.

3. Abusing the power you have. Read any page of any history book and you see how monarchs, generals and presidents abuse power. But so do supervisors, middle managers, and team leads. You only need a little power to abuse it –– and thus make yourself less effective in conflict. Great leaders are highly aware of how they influence others, and watch out for the most common power traps, such as: “The Bulletproof Trap” (you make conflicts worse by thinking you are invincible), the “Not-Seeing-the-Trees-for-the-Forest Trap” (you appear insensitive to your underlings by ignoring details because you only see the “big picture”), and the “Screw the Rules Trap” (you bend or break rules because after all, you’re special –– you’re the leader! This sets the stage for minor or major rebellions).

4. Neglecting the power you have. Even if you are in a position of power, you also have a boss with whom you do not always agree. When you find yourself in lower power in a conflict, you may fall into different traps. These include the “Keep your Head Down Trap” (you keep your aspirations so low you don’t even try to find better solutions), the “Powerlessness Corrupts Trap” (you succumb to cynicism or rage toward those in authority, turning to apathy or sabotage), and the “Victim Status Trap” (you wallow in a sense of oppression and victimhood, which ironically can lead to a sense of superiority and refusal to negotiate).

5. Misunderstanding power. Don’t make conflict worse by acting passively. Even if you are less powerful than the person with whom you disagree, it doesn’t mean you have no power. Less power does not equal powerless. There are always informal ways to influence managers and leaders above you in the organization. And these methods do not show up on the organization chart. They include actions such as appealing to the others’ interests, eliciting cooperation, creating positive relations with superiors, fostering reciprocity, rational persuasion, increasing their dependence on you, and more.

If you are determined to lead others to great results, learn all you can about making conflict work.

Author bios:
Robert Ferguson, PhD, is a psychologist, management consultant, and executive coach. Peter T. Coleman, PhD, is Professor of Psychology and Education at Columbia University, Director of the International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution. They are the authors of Making Conflict Work: Harnessing the Power of Disagreement. Follow them on Twitter @conflictpower.