Effective Conflict Resolution for Teams and Organizations

September 28, 2018 By Irma Tyler Wood

How would you respond to the following statements?
An effective organization experiences little conflict.
True                   False 
Conflict among team members is destructive to team unity and effectiveness.
True                   False 

To preserve organizational or team effectiveness, conflict is to be avoided when possible.
True                   False 

Each of the above statements is false. The absence of conflict is not a measure of team or organization effectiveness.  An effective team may experience a great deal of conflict, differences of opinion over how to accomplish the goals of the organization, over the process for achieving those goals, over the timeframes or budgets for getting the work done, etc.  Conflict is a necessary by-product of bringing any group of bright, committed, independent, creative thinkers together to solve a problem or achieve a goal.  

In fact, it is the failure of teams and organizations to deal openly and constructively with conflict that is destructive to effectiveness and unity.  Attempts to stifle or deny conflict leave unresolved problems and feelings simmering.  The resulting frustration, tension and anger often resurface in a much more destructive form.  

If conflict is healthy and inevitable and denying it or stifling it is likely to produce bigger problems, an effective team needs a process and skill for dealing effectively with conflict.  The process recommended in, Getting To Yes, Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, by Roger Fisher and William Ury, provides useful guidance for teams and organizations by giving them a constructive way to manage and resolve conflict.

The Problem:  A Focus on Positions

When differences arise over any issue, people tend to take positions.  They are either for or against expanding the budget.  They are for or against merging with another organization.  When someone takes a position, the discussion that follows focuses on that position, with various parties making arguments that demonstrate why the position is right or wrong.  If someone is right, then someone else must be wrong.  Discussions focused on positions tend to follow a downward spiral with egos and emotions getting entwined in positions in ways that often cause irreparable damage to working relationships.

One Solution:  A Seven Element© Process

Whenever a conflict arises among team members, departments or with other organizations, instead of focusing on positions, focus first on the process you will use to address the conflict.

Create an Effective, Efficient Communication Process.  This is especially important to address before the team or organization is actually enmeshed in a conflict.  The team leader can lead this process or select a facilitator, someone who does not have a vested interest in the outcome of the conflict, to lead it.  The team should work with the team leader or facilitator to identify the issues that must be discussed to resolve the conflict.  Identify who needs to be involved in the discussion.  Clarify what data will be needed to make a wise decision.  Create an agenda for how the team will proceed, i.e., for each issue to be discussed, first we’ll elicit and clarify interests, then we will brainstorm possible options.  Any decision among the options will take place after a discussion of criteria, what’s fair and legitimate.  Final commitments will be made at our next meeting, etc.  Being explicit about how you plan to proceed and getting group buy-in to that process minimizes any surprise or feeling that any team member has been “railroaded.”  

Establish ground rules about how you will communicate before emotions get high and egos get involved.  Examples of ground rules you might consider are, no one is allowed to interrupt when another team member is speaking; every team member gets an opportunity to speak once on an issue before any team member can speak twice on the same issue; the team will use “I” statements instead of “you” statements to avoid personal attacks or people feeling personally attacked; statements made in this session are confidential and not to be discussed outside the group until we reach an agreement, etc.  It is the facilitator’s job to enforce the ground rules and keep the group on task as defined by their agenda.

Address Relationship Issues:  When there is trust, mutual respect and the ability to have candid, open communication, there are very few conflicts a team or organization can’t resolve.  However, if there are relationship problems, based on past history or events, address them before you attempt to resolve the conflict.  If there is a lack of trust, respect and the ability to have candid, open communication in the group, raise it, and be clear about your purpose for raising it, i.e., my goal for looking back at what went wrong on our project is not to blame or attack anyone, but to learn what happened and why so we don’t repeat the same mistakes again.  A facilitator might help the group diagnose what happened, why and what they need to do going forward to avoid past mistakes or conflicts.  Adopt some relationship ground rules to ensure that you stay on track.  Examples of such ground rules are, “When something goes wrong, before I make assumptions about your intent, I will call or meet with you to hear your explanation.” or, “Whenever our team is about to make a decision that will impact your department, we will consult with you before we make our decision.”  

Clarify Interests, Not Positions.  A position is simply someone’s answer as to how to solve a problem or achieve a goal.  Taking a position becomes a problem in a conflict when the position is presented as a rigid, inflexible demand.  Whenever people take positions, there are interests underlying those positions.  Interests are the basic needs, wants, desires, fears and concerns that underlie the positions presented by team members.  Focus on those interests by asking WHY?  Why do you want to expand the budget?  What will that accomplish?  Why are you opposed to remodeling the facilities?  What are your concerns?  Elicit and record on flipcharts all of the interests that various team members have around each issue that is in conflict.  Whenever anyone takes a position or makes a demand during a conflict, those hearing the position or demand have only two choices ––yes or no.  If team members understand why the person has taken their position or is making their demand, the team can brainstorm many options, choices for how best to achieve that goal.

Once each team member has shared their interests on the issue that is in conflict, the facilitator or team leader should ask team members to look at the list of interests that are recorded on flip charts and identify interests they have in common with each other.  The facilitator can put a star or a C beside common interests.  Then the facilitator can ask team members to identify interests that are different, but not in conflict with each other and put a D besides those that are different but not in conflict.  Finally the facilitator should ask, which of the interests listed are in conflict with each other.  They can put the letters CONF besides those interests that are in conflict.

Brainstorm Options Without Commitment.  Once all interests have been elicited, and categorized as either common, differing or conflicting interests, the team can focus on brainstorming options, possible proposals for resolving the conflict that will meet the interests of all parties.  Begin the option brainstorming by focusing first on options that satisfy common interests, then move to differing interests and finally to those interests that are in conflict.  This gives team or organization members time to deal with less emotional issues first and to gain trust in the process they are using.  To encourage creativity the following brainstorming ground rules should be in effect:

  1. First divide your time into thirds, 1/3 for brainstorming options, 1/3 for analyzing and evaluating options and 1/3 for deciding among the options, which ones you’d like to adopt. 
  2. While the team is brainstorming, all options are recorded, no option may be criticized or evaluated and the team may not decide to accept or reject any option. 
  3. Only after the brainstorming session is over can team members begin the process of evaluating which options best meet the interests of the team.

Suppose there are three good options on the table.  How should the team decide among them?

Use Criteria, Independent Standards of Legitimacy.  No one likes to feel coerced into accepting an unfair resolution or decision.  To ensure that team members feel the decision among options is legitimate and fair, use benchmarks that are independent of the will of any individual team member.  To the extent that there is hard data, or independent expertise which serves as a basis for proposing and deciding among options, team members are more likely to feel the resolution arrived at is legitimate and that they were fairly treated, regardless of outcome.  Examples of legitimacy include, company policy, industry standards, past precedent or practice, what government regulations say or what the law says. 

Consider Alternatives to Agreement. What if agreement is not possible despite the best efforts of the team?  Is there a way to satisfy team and/or individual interests without reaching agreement with the team?  For example, if one team member wants to restructure the way the work is organized, but other team members won’t agree to that team member’s proposal, the team member should assess whether there are other ways to achieve his/her goals.  What is it that restructuring the work is designed to solve?  Is there a way to solve the problem unilaterally without the agreement of colleagues?  Assess your BATNA, Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement early.  Only discuss your BATNA if the party or parties with whom you are in conflict is underestimating your BATNA or over estimating his BATNA.  Be careful when discussing your BATNA, it can sound like a threat, i.e., “If you don’t do this, I will do that.  Threats generally derail constructive conflict resolution.

Maintain an Effective Working Relationship. An effective working relationship is one in which team members can deal with differences and, regardless of the outcome of the conflict, maintain trust, mutual respect, good communication and the ability to work well together in the future.  Easy to describe, challenging to achieve and maintain.  Here is some strategic advice on how to achieve and maintain effective working relationships on a team or within an organization:

  • Separate the relationship issues from substantive issues.  Think and plan explicitly as a team about how to achieve and maintain good working relationships, independent of issues of substance, i.e., what you will or won’t agree to.
  • Do only those things that are good for the relationship and for the team and/or organization regardless of whether those in conflict reciprocate.  A human tendency is to react with a “hard” tit-for-tat strategy when we feel we’ve been mistreated or with a “soft” I’ll treat you the way I want to be treated regardless of how you treat me, strategy.
  • Balance emotion with reason, even if others are reacting emotionally, you have a choice –– you can react or be purposive in your behavior.  Recast any attack on you as an attack on the problem you are both there to solve.
  • Try to understand their perceptions, even if you are misunderstood.  Do a lot of reflecting and ask clarifying questions to be sure you understand how they see the problem or issue.
  • Listen to them even if they are not listening to you; consult with them before making decisions on matters that affect them.
  • Be reliable, neither trust them or deceive them, even if they are trying to deceive you.  Giving someone your trust is a matter of risk assessment.  Being trustworthy, i.e., reliable, gives you power in any effort to resolve conflict.
  • Use non-coercive modes of influence, neither yield to coercion nor try to coerce others.  Be open to persuasion and try to persuade them on the merits, not on the basis of your power over them.
  • Accept them and their viewpoints as worthy of consideration.  Be open to learning from others even if they have trouble learning from or accepting you.

Craft a Realistic, Sufficient, and Operational Commitment Only After Learning All You Can.  Many teams and organizations seek commitment, i.e., agreement from the conflicting parties at the start of a discussion.  A team is ill-equipped to reach an agreement until it understands the interests of all parties, has evaluated individual and group alternatives to agreement, and has used a communication process that is designed to ensure effective, efficient communication while maintaining or enhancing the working relationship between team members departments or organizations.  

Often, there is such a relief at having resolved conflict that team members fail to think carefully and clearly about crafting the commitment so that it is sufficient, i.e., it deals with the main interests of the parties; it is operational; everyone understands who is going to do what by when; it is realistic –– what has been agreed to is possible and can be done and any misunderstanding or miscommunication is cleared up prior to any attempt at implementation.  

Thinking and planning carefully about how to use the Seven Element Framework© discussed above will make it possible for teams and organizations to handle conflict in an effective, constructive way.