How Much Is Conflict Costing You?

Updated: Jul 17, 2018

Key take-aways:

Many of us struggle with conflict and the ability to have courageous conversations. Yet what is the cost to us personally, and to our businesses and organisations, of doing nothing?

Functional conflict can be highly productive and lead to better relationships, increased innovation and higher performance. On the other hand, “Dysfunctional Conflict” can be destructive. What type of conflict does your business or organisation have?

Many of us have a "go to" or default behaviour when it comes to conflict behaviours but there are a range of different styles we can utilise in order to best suit the situation.

There's a framework you can use to better understand conflict and choose what conflict behaviour style to use depending on your goal. This gives you more situational flexibility which is an essential leadership skill. 

How effective at dealing with conflict are you? How much does unresolved or poorly handled conflict cost you personally, let alone cost your business or organisation?

For many of the leaders and managers I work with, the ability to have courageous conversations and deal effectively with conflict are their biggest challenges. This month's newsletter contains tips for approaching conflict conversations and a framework to help you think through your approach.

A business owner called Andrew approached me for coaching assistance because his business growth had stagnated. He and his business partner, Michael, were not on the same page which was causing conflict.  Andrew wanted the business to grow faster, he wanted to bring in new clients and start to use business Key Performance Indicators to increase accountability. He was frustrated that Michael seemed to be blocking his initiatives. Andrew's resentment had built up and he was at a point of walking away from their six-year partnership. This was a pivotal moment for his livelihood, yet Andrew lacked the confidence and skills to have a “courageous conversation” with Michael and talk about where he was at.

For many of the leaders and team members I work with, their biggest challenges are how to manage conflict effectively and how to have difficult conversations.

Yet conflict is a natural part of life and, if handled effectively, can be highly productive and lead to better relationships, increased innovation and higher performance. This is known as “Functional Conflict”. On the other hand, “Dysfunctional Conflict” can be destructive. It impacts on businesses through decreased productivity and performance; increased staff turnover and absenteeism; lowered morale; and possible legal action. Then there’s the opportunity cost of lost time to your business that could have been spent on more productive initiatives. There’s a cost to the staff involved too such as stress, anxiety and depression.

What sort of workplace do you have? Do you have more functional than dysfunctional conflict? Or is conflict costing you, your business and your staff more than it needs to?

If you could wave a magic wand and tomorrow all unproductive conflict in your business was gone, what would that mean for you? What would be different?

The great news is that navigating conflict successfully is a skill that can be learnt and improved.

I’d like to share with you an effective framework to understand and approach conflict. There are five basic ways that people behave when they respond to conflict. They tend to:

· Avoid,

· Accommodate,

· Compromise,

· Collaborate, or

· Compete.

Most of us usually have our one or two “go-to” or default responses when facing conflict. What’s yours? Do you tend to put your head in the sand and avoid conflict at all costs? Do you fire up, try to “win” and achieve your goal over the other person’s? Do you tend to give in and let the other person get their way but not look after your own needs? Do you compromise and find the middle ground? Or do you work to identify new solutions that will work for both parties? The Thomas Kilmann Model (see figure below) says that we can assess the most effective conflict behaviour to use by thinking about the importance of the relationship and balancing that with the importance of achieving our own goals.

If you only have one or two ways you behave during conflict, then you’ll find conflict hard to resolve because some styles are poorly suited to certain situations.

If you keep reverting to your default conflict behaviour, then it’s like playing a game of golf with only a putter in your bag and you use that club no matter where you are on the course. Expanding your conflict behaviours means your golf bag is full of different clubs that you can pull out and use at different times for the best result.

Being able to assess the situation and understand what’s really important is the key to successful conflict navigation. Like most leadership skills, the five conflict behaviours can be developed, practiced and improved so that we’re more comfortable with using all of them rather than replying on our default position. We can then make a choice about which of the behaviours we pull out of our golf bag instead of handling everything with a putter!

So, what happened with Andrew and Michael? I’m pleased to say that, through the coaching process, Andrew was able to increase his awareness of the different conflict behaviours, reflect on his own and identify that he had been Avoiding and Competing. We practiced having assertive conversations so that he was able to be more comfortable with using different behaviours than his default positions.

I also asked him to put himself in Michael’s shoes and see the situation from his perspective. How might Michael be viewing Andrew’s behaviour? This gave Andrew new insights about unhelpful behaviours he had been contributing to the situation and enabled him to take responsibility for making positive change in their relationship. We set goals between our sessions about conversations Andrew wanted to have and he reported back to me on how they went.

It was such a credit to both Andrew and Michael that they were able to have the conversations they needed to have. As a result, they have both recommitted to the future of their business and are on the same page. Michael brought in a big new client. Their trust is greater and they are happier at work. They’re exploring new ideas and are excited about where they’re heading.

What might happen in your business or organisation if you and your people were more skilled at navigating conflict? What’s the cost of doing nothing?