Organizational Health
(5 Minute Read)

3 Common Conflict Personas and how Situational Leadership can help you lead them to resolution effectively

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.

Instigating Isaac

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:

  • They focus on the negative in situations, and minimize the positive— look for someone more interested and engaged in negative updates than positive ones. 
  • They drive doubt and try to bring out insecurities—”you remember that one time you tried that and it backfired?”
  • They gossip—if an employee is talking about another employee behind their back, it is a classic sign of an instigator.
  • They escalate facts—look out for those people whose version of a story is full of exaggerations, superlatives, and absolutes.

Leading an Instigating Isaac

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. [1] 

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. 

Avoiding Andy

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:

  • Denying that an issue exists—when you bring up some kind of disagreement or problem, these employees will likely try to skirt around it.
  • Side-stepping tough conversations—when a challenging topic comes up, like constructive feedback on a project or asking for updates on a delayed project, they attempt to divert to something easier.
  • Complete withdrawal—like Andy hiding in his office, these employees will often close down or go silent when adversarial situations arise. Whether physically or verbally, these members of the team will remove themselves from conflict.

Leading an Avoiding Andy

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:

  • Frequent Check-Ins: Have consistent authentic communication with these employees. This can help develop familiarity, trust, and an easy avenue to have conversations about tense situations.
  • Communications Tools: Give these team members multiple avenues of communication by taking advantage of technology. Some employees need some time to calmly develop a rational argument. Create virtual environments for employees to safely discuss challenging topics
  • Lead by example: Demonstrate to your employees that it is healthy to debate, disagree, and work through conflict. Be the first to open up discussions and lead healthy conversations that give everyone a safe chance to express their viewpoint.

Accommodating Ashley

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. [2] 

Here are some tips for identifying the Accommodating Ashley’s on your team:

  • Express then Retreat—when opinions are asked, this persona will initially voice their opinion, but if someone raises a strong opinion in response they back down and say something along the lines of “let’s go with that” or “never mind, that makes sense”.
  • Put others first, always—this persona is often extremely selfless. They are the employees that go out of their way to serve people around them (maybe to a fault). You may even notice they are willing to hinder their own convenience and productivity to make sure other people are happy.
  • May take on way more than they can handle—accommodators have a hard time saying no. In fact, they may become overloaded and start letting things slip through the cracks as they say yes to everyone else’s needs before their own

Leading an Accommodating Ashley

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:

  • Give everyone a voice—create an environment where everyone gets a turn to speak. If someone starts to offer an opinion and backs down, ask them to share. Make sure one of your cultural norms is that everyone gets a turn to flesh out their opinion and speak without being interrupted. 
  • Teach healthy boundaries—long term habits of accommodating can be deeply ingrained. Consider coaching these employees to slowly begin standing up for themselves and finding the ability to say “No.” Start with small things and in time graduate to standing up in tough situations. 
  • Lead on reciprocity—healthy business relationships need a level of give and take. Accommodators often only give. Demonstrate to your employees that their time and opinions are valuable and make sure that Accommodating Ashleys get opportunities to ask for help, not just give it. 

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!


References:

  1. Meinert, D. (2021, July 6). Why workplace conflict can be healthy. SHRM. Retrieved November 24, 2021, from https://www.shrm.org/hr-today/news/hr-magazine/0517/pages/why-workplace-conflict-can-be-healthy.aspx. 
  2. Simmons, C. (2020, June 26). Using the Accommodation Conflict Resolution Style. MV Mediation Program. Retrieved December 1, 2021, from https://www.mvmediation.org/blog/conflict-resolution-ideas-day-16.