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Three New Ways to Manage Conflict

By Melissa J. Anderson

In a recent interview with Forbes.com, author Stephen R. Covey discussed how working through workplace conflict can lead to a more productive outcome for everyone involved – via “The Third Alternative.” He explained:

“Beyond ever-present personality conflicts, serious conflicts arise over compensation, promotions, resource allocation, who gets credit for what, big strategy questions—almost all of them can be not only resolved but turned into great opportunities for growing and advancing the organization. A 3rd-Alternative thinker automatically looks beyond the two sides of a conflict in search of a better way.”

By finding a better, third alternative to a seemingly zero-sum argument, Covey explains, all parties involved can find an outcome they can be happy with and be more productive in the long term. The conflict becomes a pathway to creating more value for the company.

Embracing the value that can arise from conflict can be difficult for leaders who are pressed for time and resources, but that shouldn’t force individuals or teams to view conflict as a negative. In fact, there are plenty of ways conflict can help build careers and teams – leading to new opportunities and better outcomes.

1. Democratizing Discussion

According to Charalambos A. Vlachoutsicos, a recent Harvard Business Review contributor, inviting disagreement in the management process can help engage employees and encourage critical thinking and creativity.

He recounts how he a former client was struggling to engage his staff to do more than execute orders. Vlachoutsicos advised him to replace his rectangular meeting tables with round ones. That simple piece of advice helped chip away at the hierarchical culture that was stunting creativity. Similarly, he advised another client to hold one-on-one meetings with staff to generate ideas, rather than just group discussions as a way to get better feedback.

He explains:

“Bosses in more open-air cultures might see this problem as alien. But consider all your team members – especially those from other generations, cultures, or professional backgrounds – whose voices might be drowned out by vocal colleagues.”

By fostering disagreement, he explains, managers can flatten hierarchically-based communication problems.

Similarly, Jeff Bussgang, general partner at Flybridge Capital Partners and an Entrepreneur-in-Residence at Harvard Business School recently explained how managing conflict appropriately can help companies be more productive. He writes:

“Conflict can be stressful, draining and uncomfortable. Yet, it’s an incredibly natural, healthy part of life… And creating a culture that can handle conflict effectively clearly has a positive impact on performance, as recent research has shown.”

2. Spurring Creativity

Creating conflict and competition is one way to get teams to come up with the latest and greatest ideas. According to ERE’s recent in depth look at Apple’s corporate culture, the company pits teams against one another to come up with the winning idea.

“Apple does many things using small development teams, as many firms do, but doesn’t rely on a single team to design each product element. Multiple teams may be assigned to the same area (or they may accidentally wander into the same area). The approach has been called 10 to 3 to 1 because 10 teams may work on a product area independently. When work is ready for review a formal peer review, it will whittle 10 mockups to three and eventually down to one.”

ERE argues that the competition between the teams fosters creative thinking and problem solving.

3. Recognize Obstacles

Surrounding yourself with “yes-people” is not how business leaders become successful. In a recent Forbes.com article, Martin Zwilling explained that business conflict should be viewed as constructive, innovative, and part of every successful business. He writes:

“Most often, conflicts present us with opportunities to solve problems and bring about necessary changes, to learn more about ourselves and the business, and to innovate – to go beyond what we already know and do.”

Additionally, Zwilling writes, it is imperative to bring conflicts to a close. “Closure in business should include formalizing the result in a written document, with clearly outlined terms and activities, and follow-on milestones as required.” That way everyone has the satisfaction and understanding that the issue has been dealt with and the team has moved on.

He continues, “The result is better decisions, more consensus, and better communication. In business, as in life, real change rarely happens without some pain. Learn to deal with it.”

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