Conflict is an inevitable aspect of diversity and inclusion. Whether we are in it personally, or resolving it for others, managing conflict effectively is a key leadership competency. The issue is not IF conflict will occur; the question is WHEN will there be another conflict?
Conflict can be defined as: “an expressed struggle between at least two interdependent parties who perceive incompatible goals, scarce resources, and interference from the other party in achieving their goals.”1
We can have internal conflict, such as endeavoring to stop procrastinating. Or we can have interpersonal conflict with another individual, or group, when the need arises to work together. And finally, we can have social conflict, where we are striving to make an impact on the world through diversity and inclusion, and societal rules and institutions work against us. The reality is that you may be experiencing varying levels of conflict in each of these areas.
Here are some simple tools to manage conflict in the workplace better, and achieve your goals.
1. Explore your ideas about conflict. There are a lot of misconceptions about conflict, such as:
- Conflict, if left alone, will take care of itself
- Confronting an issue, or person, is always unpleasant.
- Anger is always negative and destructive.
Many of our ideas about conflict stem from our upbringing. It’s easy to fall into the trap of avoiding conflict because we think that it may have negative consequences, as evidenced by our past. However, in achieving emotional maturity in this realm called conflict, we have to go beyond our experiences toward perfection. This means that we may have to look at conflict as an opportunity—an opportunity to build relationships, an opportunity to air grievances, and an opportunity to make more informed decisions.
Further, anger can be good. It’s alright to get mad because sometimes, there are things that warrant and justify our anger. The key is not to hold onto the anger—this can be destructive, not only to your health but also for your morale.
Discuss issues that concern you after you have cooled down, but it doesn’t hurt to let others know how you feel once in a while. I’m not promoting the “angry diversity executive”, but I am advising you to share your constructive feelings. This means that you may have to say, “It made me angry when you challenged me in that meeting and kept interrupting me. Why did you do that? How can you and I avoid such a nasty, public confrontation in the future?”
2. Know when to fight. Some battles are not worth fighting. We have to pick and choose our battles. If we decide to engage, we must have a strategy for victory. There’s nothing like picking a battle to fight and losing. Therefore, you have to be conscientious about your decisions and tactics once the engagement begins. On the other hand, some things can be quickly resolved by apologizing—even if you are not wrong. During the 2012 Presidential Campaign, some pundits tried to exploit “apologizing” as a weakness. However, if you have ever done it, you know that it takes a strong leader to make amends with opposing groups—especially when you are the one who is right.
3. Choose what tools to use. The Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI) is a great tool for understanding how different conflict-handling styles affect interpersonal and group dynamics. It’s also a fast and powerful tool that can go beyond conflict management to support your team-building, leadership, coaching, and retention goals.
Depending on the person(s) and the situation, you may find that the TKI helps you to use different tools at different times. For example, some situations may require collaboration, while others need you to compete, avoid, accommodate or comprise. The more tools that you have in your arsenal, the better off that you will be when conflict arises.
Today, you can start thinking about conflict differently. Conflict can be a wonderful opportunity for you to validate your leadership skills, as well as your decision-making abilities. It can also present an opportunity for you to build positive, stronger relationships!
By Leah Smiley, CDE
Leah Smiley is the President of the Society for Diversity. For more information about the Society for Diversity, log onto http://www.societyfordiversity.org.
1 Hocker, J.L. and Wilmot, W.W. (1991). Interpersonal conflict. Dubuque, IA: William C. Brown.