You've probably witnessed this for yourself: Two managers in your organisation go head to head in a grab for power, position or pay. Soon, their teams start taking sides, making communication and collaboration impossible to achieve. This scenario represents a particularly destructive brand of conflict, according to Michael Feiner, a professor at Columbia University's Graduate School of Business
In other "unhealthy" forms of conflict, employees jockey for favour with the boss, argue over how the firm is treating them, or sabotage each other's professional reputations to advance their own careers.
Whatever shape unhealthy conflict takes, it always wreaks havoc, draining much-needed attention and energy away from the issues that matter. It also gives conflict a bad name. Managers conclude that all conflict is inherently unhealthy and should be squelched as quickly as possible. <p/>But that isn't true, says Feiner. "Contests over personal agendas can be unhealthy, but conflicts over ideas are often good." <p/>In fact, he says, skilled leaders go out of their way to encourage heated debate, disagreement and discussion over ideas, issues and decisions.
"The higher the stakes in a key decision, the more vital it is to stimulate healthy conflict." Battles over ideas, Feiner says, "lead to creativity, innovation and positive change by squeezing the best ideas from each participant's mind".
Effective executives learn to minimise bad conflict while cultivating good conflict. This balancing act begins by developing a new mindset.
Avoid a corporate coronary
Managers should think of conflict as cholesterol, Feiner says. Compare the negative impact of bad cholesterol on your health with the benefits of good cholesterol. Adopt whatever disciplines and practices - new fitness or dietary regimens - you need to reduce the bad kind and increase the good kind.
Leaders who can recognise the downside of unhealthy conflict and the upside of healthy conflict are better equipped to achieve a proper balance. "You save your company from having a corporate coronary," Feiner says.
Handling conflict deftly entails a new attitude towards leadership. "Relying on your power to push people into following you only generates destructive conflict, because people feel bullied," Feiner says.
"You want their commitment, not their compliance. You want to pull people - take them with you - not push them," he adds.
However, for truly effective conflict leadership, executives must also master the skills needed to manage the various types of conflict.
Don't be thrown by conflict
Conflict is a constant in business life, says Feiner. He notes that people have always been ambitious and achievement-oriented. And given the increasing pressure to generate better business results, it's not surprising that employees sometimes put their own interests above those of their organisation.
The best leaders don't try to squelch all conflict. Instead, they distinguish between healthy and unhealthy conflict, and tip the scales towards the good variety. They develop a broad repertoire of options for minimising destructive conflict. At the same time, they encourage people to check personal agendas at the door, and argue about ideas instead.
The more options you have in your repertoire, Feiner says, the more flexibility you have in resolving unhealthy conflicts. "When you become aware of a bad conflict," Feiner notes, "simply asking 'What are my options?' can reveal the most appropriate way of responding."
Take note if you keep falling back on the same options. "If you are, learn how to use other options. You want a variety of pitches to draw from."
Minimise bad conflict
Many executives don't realise they can handle conflict in many ways. Instead, they assume they have two choices at most: Avoid the conflict or confront the parties.
Each of these responses may have merit under specific conditions. For example, a manager may decide it's best to ignore an interpersonal conflict between two team members if she believes the problem will blow over.
But in some cases, confrontation can help defuse a destructive conflict. For instance, if people from different departments lock horns over money or power, do them and your company a favour by confronting them. Says Feiner, "Point out that the conflict isn't just bad for the business - it's destructive to the person's credibility and career."
Such conversations can be tricky. Feiner recommends adapting your delivery style to the person you're confronting and emphasising his interests over the company's interests. Managers need to develop options beyond avoidance and confrontation. In his book, The Feiner Points of Leadership: The 50 Basic Laws that Will Make People Want to Perform Better for You (Warner Business, 2004), he suggests some additional responses.
Compromise: Find a fair solution that satisfies both parties. For example, the marketing executive wants to launch a product on September 1, but the manufacturing executive (who has long been at odds with the marketing executive) argues for November 1. You encourage them to agree to October 1.
Delegation: Ask a subordinate with a strong track record of conflict resolution to address the problem on your behalf. This sends the message that not every contest has to climb the corporate ladder.
Collaboration: Encourage the parties to openly discuss their disagreement and reach a solution - together. Acknowledge that they have different viewpoints, then ease intense emotions by guiding the discussion towards an assessment of the facts.
You can ask questions such as "What additional data can we bring in to arrive at the best solution?"
Maximise good conflict
The key to healthy conflict is the energetic exchange of ideas. Leaders have numerous techniques at their disposal for stimulating fruitful debate and disagreement.
Realign agendas: Talk openly about the damage the conflict is causing: "Your differences have created a civil war. How can we resolve this dispute for your own good and the good of the organisation?" This option takes time, but it produces the most enduring results.
Preclude group-think: Feiner advises managers not to state their opinion on an issue early in a discussion. "You'll only encourage group-think," he says,"because few people will feel comfortable challenging you."
Encourage dialogue: Take notice when one or more participants fall silent. "Ask the person what he or she is thinking and feeling," says Feiner.
Designate a devil's advocate: Getting someone to play devil's advocate on an issue can further stimulate a lively or even heated exchange of ideas.
Pin down divergence/convergence: Participants scribble on Post-its what they see as the three key issues. Fix the notes to a wall, then see where the consensus and dissent lie. Through debate and discussion based on the notes, participants work towards a convergence of opinion. This approach helps ensure that everyone's ideas are included in the decision process.
Such techniques enable a leader to send an important message: "I want your ideas. I want your disagreement. I want you to challenge me."
The resulting interaction of ideas lays the foundation for the innovative, creative thinking that healthy conflict generates.
Harvard Management Update