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Gina London: How to resolve conflict and win battles without fighting


Gina London

Gina London

Gina London

By the time you read this column, after weeks and weeks of emotional debates, dramatic posters and billboards, and heated conversations, the big vote will be over.

Although I am proudly an Irish resident, I still only have American citizenship, and as such I was unable to vote in the referendum. I was, however, recently invited to take part in a TV3 panel on the issue.

I offered my broader historic perspective of what has transpired in my home country since the US Supreme Court decided Roe v Wade. Needless to say, the discussion was impassioned on all sides.

Margaret Heffernan (the American businesswoman, not the doyenne of Dunnes Stores) is quoted as saying: "For true innovation, you need human interaction, conflict, argument and debate."

In business interactions, as with other types, we must learn to deal with one another after a vehement time of conflict or debate.

When conflict arises in the workplace - as it invariably will - many organisations are not prepared to handle it.

Many chief executives work hard to create a culture that eliminates conflict or one which rapidly stamps out ripples of discontent.

But, rather than trying to avoid it in the first place, understanding that - as Heffernan stated - conflict can become a fuel to spur positive growth, change or evolution, can lead an organisation to embrace it, rather than discourage it.

In fact, research from the University of Nebraska suggests that allowing conflict to surface and encouraging a "devil's advocacy approach" to decision-making often produces better outcomes and reduces groupthink.

Conflicts are bound to happen. So managers who focus on promoting mindfulness and respectful communications can help teams work effectively through disagreements.

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If a clash comes crashing into your company, it will take time to work through it, but, never fear, I have some suggestions to help guide your way.

1 Be self-aware: There's a difference, of course, between being a leader who can captain a period of conflict and being a rabble-rouser who just likes to stir things up. The more aware you are of the leadership style that you deploy, the more able you will be to anticipate, self-correct or seek help on when issues of conflict come on the horizon.

2 Be 'others' aware: How aware are you about the other people with you on your team? Are your directors or board members argumentative? Do they take things too personally? How can you help them to strategically think through an issue or event to get through the other side?

3 Build awareness: One of the best ways for a team or organisation to tackle conflict, is to take a workshop specifically on the very issue. Understanding how alternatively looking at the traditional concept of conflict can be very beneficial in reframing attitudes. Again, that University of Nebraska report argues that task conflict stimulates creativity and enhances team effectiveness. How's that for a different view?

4 Teach proper dialogue techniques: Did you take a debate class in secondary school or university? How long has it been since you were trained in the fundamental approaches to positively resolving conflict? Once you've attended a session on how to look at workplace conflict in a different light, it would do you and your team good if you would also refresh your memory on how to effectively move an issue of conflict along to a resolution or new learning. I've written before in a previous column how a person's engagement brain activity begins to shut down when they are disrespected during a conversation. Needless to say, it's best to avoid personal attacks when discussing a business point of contention.

5 Consider other points of view: If your corporate culture only fosters a 'my way or the highway' self-righteous view, you're missing out on growth and innovation opportunities. Don't tell an opposing person they're wrong before you let them have their say. They might pleasantly surprise you if your mind is open.

6 Write a manual: You and your team could take your leadership workshop learnings and institutionalise them in the form of manual. Write up a communications and/or conflict resolution protocol in which everyone buys in. Make sure to ask employees to help with this project as research shows that people who help create something, will usually support it. Investing the time to write a conflict-resolution protocol will raise morale and in the face of an unexpected legal challenge, could save you loads.

7 Actively seek brainstorming: I once had a manager client boast to me that he had an 'open door' policy. "What does that really mean?" I challenged. "Is your door just open and you're waiting for people to walk in - or are you going out and actually asking them stuff?"

Don't be a waiter. Be a seeker. In addition to your communications guidelines, your team can help you hold regular feedback meetings and listening sessions so you know what's really going on.

8 Reframe and repeat: Once you have firmly established that conflict can actually contribute to the long-term vitality of a company, understand that as with any important communications tool, actively approaching workplace conflict from a different perspective is one that takes diligence, vigilance and practice. Keep going and keep growing!