Conflict can be time consuming, damaging and stressful. In this article, we consider some strategies for managing conflict so as to minimise its impact.
Is conflict bad?
As we know conflict can run from opposition between ideas and interests to a struggle or battle. Good managers welcome some degree of disagreement within their team. After all, a free exchange of ideas and opinions can be healthy as it can support the finding of solutions and innovation. Conversely, eradicating disagreement and being surrounded by “Yes People” can be dangerous. So, you will want to encourage an environment where people can speak out. But you will also want to discourage conflict that undermines the collegiality and efficiency of your team or department. And you will certainly want to diffuse unhealthy conflict with key ‘clients’.
Our view of conflict is influenced by our personality – some people relish robust debate, which to another person may seem like a confrontational battle which undermines the search for a solution to a problem. However, it is important to recognize that you may have a preferred approach to conflict whilst acknowledging that good management requires a range of possible responses, depending on the situation. Essentially, you need to expand the ways in which you deal with conflict.
The GC’s Role in Managing Conflict
The GC (and other senior lawyers) can play an important role in managing conflict both in the legal team and across the organisation. First, the culture they develop in the legal team and the tone of dealings between the lawyers will be an important factor in preventing and diffusing conflict. Second, the relationships they develop across the organisation will help smooth dealings between the legal team and their ‘clients’. The GC and senior lawyers can also be seen as ‘a voice of reason’, seeking to diffuse conflict where it arises amongst senior colleagues – other members of a working group or committee, for example. This ‘soft conflict resolution’ is an area where the GC and senior lawyers can make a valuable contribution.
The strength of the GC’s and legal team’s relationships, their personal credibility and the esteem in which they are held will be particularly important when legal advice is given that is unwelcome and challenging. Legal advice may sometimes be robustly challenged and the GC will need to be persuasive in clarifying the legal position and making clear that the advice is non-negotiable irrespective of its unpopularity. Of course, legal advice may sometimes be modified in some respect in the light of further analysis or information, but that it a different matter.
Conflict Management Strategies
Here are 7 strategies to consider.
- Acknowledge the problem
- Define and understand the problem
- Identify the areas of conflict
- Focus on the problem not the personalities
- Determine your approach – compete, collaborate, compromise, avoid, accommodate
- Involving others
- Follow up.
1. Acknowledge the problem
Whilst some people relish conflict, many of us find ways to avoid dealing with it quickly, or sometimes at all. Whilst avoidance may be a legitimate response in certain circumstances (see #5 below), generally it does not pay to leave conflict unresolved. Hence, the first step to managing conflict is to acknowledge its existence and to resolve to take action.
2. Defining and understanding the problem
It’s important to understand why the situation has arisen and you cannot do that without speaking to those involved. Convene an early meeting to listen to what people are saying and why they feel strongly about the situation that’s arisen. How you do this depends on the circumstances but it will rarely be sensible to rush to judgement without understanding the problem. It may be important for people to be able to express their concerns, fears and emotions before the conflict can be resolved.
3. Identify the areas of conflict
It helps to be forensic about what is actually in dispute. Is it a fundamental disagreement about a substantive issue relating to legal advice or policy, or is it focused on matters of style and approach? It helps to clarify this as there will usually be a number of areas that are not contentious and around which you are able to build agreement.
4. Focus on the problem, not personalities
Conflicts can quickly become personal. There may be occasions when the conflict does result from the unreasonable behaviour of one person. But, generally, it helps to ensure that differences are focused on the issue at hand and do not escalate into personal attacks. So, focus the parties on the substantive issues and list these as you look for resolution.
5. Determine your approach
Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann developed a conflict resolution assessment (TKI) that is designed to measure behaviour in conflict situations. They categorise two dimensions of an individual’s behaviour in a conflict situation – assertiveness, which is concerned with the individual’s own concerns and cooperativeness, which is the extent to which they attempt to satisfy those of the other person. Along with these two dimensions, Thomas and Kilmann say that there are five different ways of responding to conflict:-
i. Competing. This is assertive and uncooperative behaviour where the individual uses the power associated with their position to win the argument. The power could be hierarchical, persuasive, or some other leverage at their disposal. It may be about simply having your view prevail but could also be relevant in defending a position that you believe to be correct. This may be a relevant approach, for example, when (as a lawyer) you are advising on a particular course of action where the consequences are significant for the organisation and it is important that your advice is accepted and acted on.
ii. Accommodating. This is unassertive and cooperative. Here the individual neglects their own position to satisfy those of another. This may take the form of obeying another’s order or accepting their point of view. Clearly, there will be situations when it pays to accommodate, such as when the relationship is more important than the matter giving rise to the conflict. Alternatively, you may find that, after listening and reflecting, the other person is actually right and you were wrong.
iii. Avoiding. This is neither assertive nor cooperative. Avoiding conflict may be the default mode for many of us. Generally speaking, it’s not a good strategy as it can allow conflicts to fester and escalate. There are situations however, where avoiding may be the best course of action. Examples range from where a matter is quite trivial and will resolve itself over time, to where it is better to postpone discussions to a more appropriate time or where you decide to diplomatically withdraw from a conflict as the matter is not worth pursuing or because there are more important challenges ahead.
iv. Collaborating. This is both assertive and cooperative. This is the classic ‘win-win’ scenario where you are working with the other party to find a solution that works for everyone. It can be time consuming and testing as you will often need to get to the heart of the issue in order to explore possible solutions. In a management context, collaboration may be appropriate where the issues are not straightforward and where it is important to preserve the relationship between the parties. It may be appropriate, for example, where you are discussing service delivery issues with a key ‘client’ where you need to find solutions that meet both your needs.
v. Compromising. This is said to be moderately assertive and cooperative. This is the classic middle ground and may lend itself to less complex situations than where you need to adopt a collaborative approach. Compromise if often relevant where a quick solution (a quick win) is available and where both parties are prepared to give something up to get part of what they want. Although it may be a quicker process than collaboration, it requires some skilful managing as you need to listen, identify and play back positions and perhaps persuade those involved to accept something less for the sake of resolution.
6. Involving others
There may be circumstances where it is useful to engage a third party to help resolve conflict. In a commercial context, this may be where a mediator is used to resolve a dispute. In a management context you may feel that it is important to resolve matters yourself but this may not always be possible and there may be merit in bringing in a neutral third party to find a way through a knotty problem. This could be because you are a party to the conflict and your objectivity is skewed or because the sheer amount of time and effort required to achieve resolution is not something you can sign up to at that time because of other pressing commitments.
7. Follow up
You’re pleased because the actions you’ve taken have diffused a difficult situation. Yet that may not be the end of the story. So, make sure you follow up to check that things are working well. If the conflict was within your own team, check with parties that things have improved and that the underlying issues have been addressed, or are being addressed. If the conflict was with a ‘client’ you’ll want regular feedback that matters are working well or for signs that further work is required. Also, don’t forget to praise those who’ve worked to resolve differences so that progress and achievement are properly recognized.
As a manager you will know that conflicts arise. You will recognise that differently held views, robustly and appropriately expressed, can be a constructive part of business life and can help promote efficiency and innovation.
You will also recognise that conflict can become damaging, undermining, stressful and time consuming. Conflicts will arise despite your best attempts to prevent them doing so. You cannot control this but you can control your response. Look for ways to expand your ability to handle conflicts by increasing your understanding of different ways of resolving them. This will develop your own self-awareness and resilience, which are important factors in becoming a successful manager.
“Resilience” (chapter 10) – Jane Clarke and Dr. John Nicholson
“Conflict Resolution Tips for Lawyers” – Anna Johansson 2018
“Managing Conflict in Law Practice and Life” – Ronda Muir, FindLaw