Welcome to the second part of a quick series on organizational conflict resolution. You can find the first part here, but let’s start with a brief breakdown of what part one covered.
First, conflict is an unavoidable part of operating a business. At some point, no matter how aligned and in sync your team is, there will be a difference of opinion. Second, while conflict can be prevented to a degree, it may be in your best interest to resolve conflict instead of avoiding it. Conflict can be a positive force if dealt with correctly, driving innovation and performance, and helping your team operate at their very best. Third, conflict stems from factors based on the individuals in your organization and the organization itself. Finally, every organization is unique, as are the conflicts and employees involved in them. It will require situational leadership to turn conflict resolution into an asset for your company.
To provide context for situational leadership, let's focus on a common scenario that could generate conflict with your organization. A construction company is looking to promote one of their project managers. The two leading candidates are Andy and Ashley. Ultimately, the owner of the company decides to go with Andy, as he is slightly more experienced, and the sites he manages have better numbers when it comes to profitability and timeliness. The final decision is then announced to the team at large.
In this situation, different employees will have their own unique reactions that leadership will have to assess and react to appropriately. However, we are breaking down the vast majority of reaction styles to conflict into 3 personas that can serve as a foundation for leaders assessing their teams in crucial moments. Meet Instigating Isaac, Avoiding Andy, and Accommodating Ashley.
After choosing Andy for the promotion, and announcing it to the company, you learn of a rumor that has begun to circulate. People are saying that Andy was chosen because you were worried that workers wouldn’t respect a female project manager. It turns out, Isaac, who wasn’t even considered for the promotion, started the rumor to create tension and conflict. Isaac is an instigator—living to stir the pot. In already tense situations, instigators escalate things and provoke others to negative reactions.
Here are a few ways to spot employees who fit this persona:
Instigators rarely stir up conflict for the purpose of a healthy resolution. They feed off of negative energy and live for the infighting and hurt they stir up. We started with this persona because it is vital to a healthy work culture to curb their attempts to instigate and prevent as much frivolous conflict as possible. Remember, healthy conflict is ok and can actually elevate your team, but lingering toxic conflict will paralyze them. 
As a leader, do your best to identify the instigators in your organization (look for the characteristics mentioned above). Then take action swiftly—don’t give the problem time to fester and grow out of control. Sit down with instigators and talk to them frankly about the unacceptable behavior you have noticed. You can openly inquire why they feel the need to talk about their coworkers behind their back for example, and then over time coach them to more positive behavior, productivity, and healthier work relationships. One important note—lead this persona by example. If you stoop to their level, or engage in some of the same behaviors you are trying to weed out, they will notice and feel emboldened to continue stirring the pot of conflict in your organization.
After the rumors began to circulate about why he was chosen over Ashley, many coworkers expressed their displeasure with management and asked Andy to talk to the bosses about the decision and tell them why he was selected. Overwhelmed by the negative attention, Andy retreats into his brand new office, closes the door and puts his head down to work. As a textbook conflict avoider, Andy simply attempts to retreat from the situation instead of seeking any resolution. This in turn will only escalate the negative impacts of the lingering conflict throughout the organization.
Here are some tips for spotting the members of your team that are likely to be Avoiding Andys:
Avoiding conflict is a recipe for disaster because ignoring something does not make it go away. While it may seem like a better response to organizational challenges than instigation, it can be equally damaging as lingering conflict eats into morale and compounds issues. Your goal with employees who tend to avoid and ignore conflict is to take steps to eliminate conflict avoidance and give them opportunities to express themselves safely.
Here are a few things to try:
After hearing the rumors about being passed over due to her gender, Ashley decides to talk to her manager. She is told this is not the case as there were other decision factors, and that she should go resolve the conflict by communicating this to her peers. Ashley wants to get a detailed explanation of the factors involved in the decision, but decides not to speak up. She goes back to her role, but the questions in her mind remain, and the resentment grows over time. Ashley is a classic accommodator. Accommodating means that while someone may have their own opinion, they decide to shelve and go with someone else’s idea. This is not an inherently negative conflict resolution style, but if someone only knows how to accommodate, in time they will often become resentful as their opinions never see the light of day and their voice is never truly heard. 
Here are some tips for identifying the Accommodating Ashley’s on your team:
Accommodators are usually awesome employees. They are selfless to a fault, put other needs above their own, and tend to try to de-escalate conflict and push for a solution. Unfortunately, many of these individuals have a lifetime of experience with their only conflict resolution technique being bowing their needs to others. In time, their voices will be lost, their opinions muted, and their contribution to the team will be far from ideal. In a healthy culture, conflict resolution gives everyone an opportunity to have a voice and be heard. Here are some ways you can help your Accommodating Ashley’s thrive:
Conflict is challenging, and dealing with the variety of individuals that make up your organization can be a daunting task as a leader. Hopefully, these three personas can serve as a starting point for identifying your team members’ approach to conflict and taking steps to build a culture tailor-made for them. If you have any questions about the personas, conflict resolution, or just want to learn more about culture and organizational health, we would love to chat. Just follow this link to get in touch!