How to manage conflicts

This is one that keeps many people away from management roles. Conflicts. Having to deal with onerous competing interests, competing demands on people, money or time, differences of opinion, personal agendas, misunderstandings, politics, resentments and the list goes on. It’s all enough to drive you bonkers, to make you lose sleep and increase the level of stress that comes with the job.

First the good news. Conflict can actually be good for a project. Differences of opinion help identify issues or elements that have not been known before or maybe not understood well enough. A marketing person might think that sending millions of emails to prospects is very efficient, but the IT department thinks the response would overload its systems, the customer service people may not have the manpower to handle the response and the compliance department might say that who gets the email is subject to legal controls on privacy and direct marketing rules as set by law or industry practices.

Then there is the bad news, where politics, personal and competing agendas, posturing and just plain personality clashes can introduce nasty scenarios into the work place.

As a manager you will have to deal with both efficiently and assertively.

There are only four ways you can deal with conflict. I will go through them one by one.

First, you can just ignore it. Whether good or bad, you can choose not to fight that battle. It’s ok to do this only if the source of the conflict is unlikely to derail your project. So if one person in the accounting department does not like the fact that you are introducing a new accounting module because she is close to retirement in three months and does not want to have to learn something new and the fact that she will struggle with it for those three months has no impact on anything else, then maybe you can choose to ignore her protests. I would still say try to get her to buy into the new application if you can, but in this scenario you are probably ok to ignore her if that does not work.

Ignoring conflicts always involves some form of risk. It is quite possible you may underestimate the source and magnitude of the conflict. In this example, if this particular person has any clout in the organization she may very well mount a mutiny against your plans. So in most cases you will not want to ignore conflicts. They tend to fester and grow and then explode in your face when you least expect it.

The second way to handle conflicts is exactly the opposite of the first. Here, you put your foot down and enforce your opinion on how things should go. This would happen either when you are in a kind of tie-breaker scenario where different sides of a conflict cannot tip the argument either way and you’re the person who has to make a decision. Or it could be a situation where opposing sides are irrationally warring over something and you have to step in to stop it and decide what will be done regardless of how everyone wants it to be.

Again in this second scenario, as in the first, you have to tread carefully. Whereas an assertive, maybe even somewhat aggressive, approach is needed sometimes, throwing around your weight, pulling rank or whatever you want to call it, also comes with risks attached. It is much better to have buy-in and get people to be convinced to follow your lead than use a stick to push them to do something.

The third scenario in handling conflicts is to negotiate a solution. Get the facts, focus on the problem, listen to everyone’s opinion and formulate a solution collaboratively. Sounds wonderful on paper but difficult in real life. I always found that if you focus on the problem rather than on the people causing it, that always works best. It avoids finger pointing, does not become a personality contest. The enemy is the problem, not the people. It is the problem, the issue, that you need to wrestle down, not the person. Communication skills, powers of persuasion, political savvy come in very handy for this approach.

The last and best way to handle conflict is to avoid it altogether. This is preventative. Make sure you understand all the elements that can cause conflict and I am really here talking about the bad type of conflict, not the one that can bring good ideas and knowledge. Make sure you do your homework and anticipate who would have a problem with a certain approach. Find a ready solution for that. Document information, make sure everyone is aware of what’s going on, take their fears and hopes into account and be ready with answers. Avoiding bad conflicts is the best strategy and will give you the best peace of mind.

Hope you found this helpful. Send me a comment and let me know what you think.


Thanks for reading.


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