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Conflict resolution with challenging people – and recognising that you may be one of them

One of the inescapable facts in any modern business environment is that conflict situations are likely. At their best, these can be great drivers of innovation, with new ideas emerging from different viewpoints. Alternatively, if not handled well, conflict can slow down creativity and relationships can become strained. So knowing how to deal constructively with disagreements is one of the most testing aspects of learning for today’s effective leaders.

Conflict can appear in almost any situation, from different views at a meeting to handling challenging employees, and it is one of the subjects most often discussed during Henley Business School’s Developing Management Practice (DMP) programme.

Debora Brockwell and Denise Fryer are joint directors of the programme and one of their aims is to enable managers, directors and senior leaders to deal with and resolve current conflict situations.

‘We all work in a complex and volatile business environment and conflict can be a very positive influence, if dealt with sensitively. However, we see lots of managers on the programme who find it difficult to find the right balance or style to resolve issues, and when that happens, dispute situations can easily spiral out of control. The question we all need to ask ourselves in a challenging situation is: ‘Are we reacting, or are we responding?’

‘If we react, we often do so without thinking through our actions or the consequences, so when we are feeling emotional about something, it may not get us the outcome we desire. On the other hand, responding means thinking through what you want to do, considering the options and potential consequences, and then doing something thoughtfully. It is being able to handle your emotions and taking responsibility for your part in any conflict. It isn’t guaranteed to get your desired outcome, but experience suggests that it is usually more successful than just reacting.’

Being assertive or being a bully

‘We often have conversations around performance management where individuals are finding it difficult to deal with an issue. If they don’t get the balance right, either the issue isn’t dealt with, or they can receive feedback that they are bullying. The outcome of this is that they then develop a reluctance to deal with the individual(s) concerned, and the problem continues unchecked, or gets worse.’

Debora cites three recent cases that have come to light from participants on the DMP programme, and they are typical of the types of conflict that can easily arise in the workplace:

  • An individual whose boss is not being supportive, and refuses to spend time with them to discuss pressing issues.
  • Colleagues working together on a project that didn’t go to plan, creating pressure between the two individuals, who blamed each other rather than working together to resolve the problem.
  • A team member who refused to engage with her manager after receiving some critical feedback on her behaviour.

‘In each case, we’ve been able to find a way forward through a process of self-awareness combined with considering how the situation impacts on the other parties’ feelings and perceptions. By creating a safe and confidential environment, and getting input from the other members of the group, participants see different perspectives and quickly realise that there may be approaches that they had never considered that could be effective in diffusing conflicts without being overly assertive.’

Conflict resolution is a skill that can be learned

‘Understanding the tools and techniques used on the DMP programme, such as Myers-Briggs (MBTI®), which increases an individual’s self-awareness, and experimental models like perceptual positions, which allow you to see an issue from different perspectives, gives managers the opportunity to reflect on their own approaches and consider some alternatives too.

‘We are often very busy at work and one of our recommendations is to take time out to reflect on your strategy for dealing with a situation, or to simply talk it through with someone. It is incredibly helpful to talk confidentially to someone who may take a different view to you, and that enables you to have your own thinking challenged.

‘Wherever possible, we encourage managers to make conflict resolution an inclusive process and we always want to maintain a respectful attitude. It is also important to be open-minded about your own behaviour because sometimes you realise you may not have handled a situation in the best way. The best leaders are those who are able to admit their own mistakes and are able to move a situation forward rather than remaining in a conflict situation.

‘After dealing with any difficult situation it is great practice to reflect on what you have learned, asking yourself what you did well and what you might have done differently. The fascination of working with people – and on yourself – is that you will always learn something new.’

Debora Brockwell and Denise Fryer are joint directors of Henley Business School’s Developing Management Practice (DMP) programme. Find out more.

Published 12 March 2020

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