True North Coaching | How to work through conflict
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How to work through conflict

How to work through conflict

Director Sue Wellman says: “In most organisations – spanning from four-man startups to multinationals – conflict inevitably rears its head. This can range from a petty spat between two newly recruited juniors, or a deep-seated resentment between two C-suite executives. Naturally, the latter scenario could have far-reaching consequences for the business, its strategy and its future direction – while the former may well go unnoticed or be easily resolved. Yet in both instances, the very existence of conflict is toxic, and potentially damaging to the organisation on a variety of levels.”  Read the full article, published on HR Pulse on 8 August 2014.

Companies may have structured approaches to conflict resolution and in certain instances, it may be more effectively resolved with the help of an objective third party. For starters, many leaders underestimate the impact that unresolved and festering conflicts have on the business. In many cases, it produces deeply unhappy employees, who respond by becoming disengaged, or ultimately leaving the company. Both scenarios can prove to be extremely costly for an organization.

Research has shown that disengaged employees are far less productive and innovative, and become deadweight. In addition, the cost of replacing even junior to mid-level employees can be significant – not to mention the loss of the time and resources that were undoubtedly invested in bringing these key personnel on board. At the executive level, unresolved conflicts can result in a company:

  • Losing its way,
  • Losing market share, and ultimately
  • Losing the hard-won faith and trust that
  • shareholders have placed in them.

It also often leads to the loss of senior talent and leadership, which is painfully hard to replace.

The importance of a third party

Besides underestimating the importance of dealing with conflicts head on, and as soon as possible,
many organisations often leave these issues to HR to deal with. And while HR may be excellently positioned, in most instances, to tackle the issue, sometimes a situation requires the input of outsiders. Critically, when conflicts are dealt with internally, one or both of the involved parties may feel that there is a lack of objectivity. While this may not be the case, it is the perceived lack of objectivity that makes a sustainable and workable resolution very difficult to achieve.

At any level, but particularly when dealing with conflict between senior level executives and employees, an outside facilitator often comes in with a detached and objective viewpoint – and is therefore better positioned to ‘coach’ both parties back to a point of reason and resolution. Outsiders are perceived as coming in with no agenda or bias, and therefore a ‘fair’ approach.

Use a one on one approach

When trying to resolve a seemingly intractable conflict between two employees, the best approach is often to start by meeting with them individually. This allows the coach or facilitator to first get a handle on where each employee is coming from, and the key issues. Once both have been talked through their personal ‘gripes’ and challenges, then a joint session is held. A variety of business tools and models are then employed which are designed to unpack each role player’s perception of the conflict, and decide on a clear strategy to move past the issues.

It is important to note that when dealing at executive levels, it is essential that the conflict facilitator is a seasoned executive coach who is accustomed to the many nuances and unique challenges that exist at the senior leadership level. Without knowledge of how business and relationships work at the very top, a facilitator will lack the required context and background insight that makes interventions successful and sustainable in the long term.

Working in partnership

Furthermore, the fallout of the conflict is often not isolated to the two individuals – but has a direct impact on the executive team or closest departments. As a result, regardless of which approach is selected to address the conflict, it is essential to work closely with the HR representative and the departmental leader(s) to ensure an approach is selected that addresses the wider impact on the organisational culture.

Indeed, by working in conjunction with a ‘perceived’ objective outsider and hand-in-hand with the internal organisational structures, such a partnership very often produces the desired outcomes.