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Just as a senior manager was rushing to leave for work, she got into a squabble with her daughter, who was resisting going to school because she had not completed her homework. At work, the manager had a difference of opinion with a colleague about the pitch, orientation and design of an important presentation they had to present jointly to the senior management. Later in the day, when she learnt that a peer had been assigned the much-coveted, career-enhancing project at the company’s branch abroad, she had an argument with her boss. By the time she reached home, she had dealt with numerous conflicts at work and at home.

Clashes are inevitable in situations where people have incompatible goals, interests, working styles, perceptions and values. Individuals, defined as they are by different shades of these multifarious characteristics, are fundamentally different. These personal differences, coupled with task dependency, overlapping authority, ambiguity in roles and processes, and limited resources, trigger conflicts, not just at individual levels, but also among broader entities like departments, organizations, even countries.

Avoidance is not the answer

Since the triggers for conflict are many, no single strategy works in every circumstance. One size, obviously, does not fit all. Shaily Gupta, group head, human resources, at the financial services group Edelweiss, Mumbai, believes that people in general tend to be uncomfortable dealing with conflict, either for fear of losing or hurting relationships. There is, therefore, a natural inclination to wish it away or push it under the carpet. This unaddressed conflict, which sometimes manifests in the form of a cold war or undercurrents, is not only disruptive from the work and relationship perspective, but also has strong adverse implications for the organizational culture. So the worst approach to conflict resolution is to assume that it will sort itself out.

Collaboration is the way to go

The essence of conflict resolution is suitably highlighted in the proverbial orange-and-peel fable. Two sisters, spotting an orange, pounce on it and after a heated argument and much debate, resign themselves to a 50-50 split. Soon after, one sister eats her share, throwing away the peel, while the other discards the pulp, using the peel instead to make marmalade. What a waste.

There are similarities here to real-life situations where people, dealing with conflict based on adversarial positions instead of needs, end up with suboptimal solutions. They tend to view situations like zero-sum games where, for one to win, the other necessarily has to lose. If the sisters had worked towards understanding each other’s context better, they would have realized the obvious compatibility of their needs. And both could have obtained an entire orange. The trick, therefore, lies in understanding the other person’s perspective, needs and goals.

Communication is the name of the game

Author Harriet B. Braiker, of Who’s Pulling Your Strings? How to Break the Cycle of Manipulation And Regain Control of Your Life, aptly stated: “Conflict can and should be handled constructively; when it is, relationships benefit. Conflict avoidance is not the hallmark of a good relationship. On the contrary, it is a symptom of serious problems and of poor communication."

Most conflicts are triggered by a gap or breakdown in communication. Yet communication is also the starting point of any conflict-resolution initiative. The foundation of a win-win approach rests on bringing all the facts, needs and perspectives to the table, and building these into a creative solution that works for all. According to Gupta, “Appreciating the other viewpoint entails the capability of drawing the person into a conversation through a combination of skilful questioning, probing and active listening, coupled with a sensitivity to body language to be able to pick up the message underlying the words, and conducting oneself with openness and flexibility."

Relationships facilitate conflict resolution

People are less likely to take strong adversarial positions, and more liable to yield and understand the perspective and needs of those involved in a conflict situation, in the face of good relationships. This positivity strips some of the complexity from the arduous task of conflict resolution. So, forge strong relationships by imbibing a pleasant manner, an appreciative nature, and a helpful attitude. Authors Bob Burg and John Mann provide a pertinent insight in their book Go-givers Sell More: “In the economics of human interactions, spending doesn’t deplete, it multiplies! The more knowledge you give, the more you have. The same with appreciation, acknowledgement, wisdom, attention, care. When you keep it to yourself, it does not build interest, it withers."

Discrepancies in working styles impede relationships and have the propensity to either intensify a conflict or pose impediments in resolving one. For instance, your manager, a stickler for time, may have a knack of showing up for meetings way before time. And you, prone to getting cowed down by last-minute issues, invariably show up late. Or, he might expect to see the minutes of a discussion on paper, while you may be inclined to jump into action, finding it a waste to put pen to paper. While none of these instances is a big deal in isolation, they do elicit impressions that people plug into their broader perception about you. And a negative perception certainly works to your disadvantage in a conflict situation.

It is important, therefore, to understand that people are wired differently, and getting an insight into their preferences, and flexing your own style accordingly, would definitely stand you in good stead.

The mediator plays a vital role

Craig E. Runde and Tim A. Flanagan had coined the term conflict competent leader in their book Becoming a Conflict Competent Leader: How You And Your Organization Can Manage Conflict Effectively to describe a leader with an ability to deal with conflicts constructively. Such a leader, according to Chandrashekhar Mukherjee, vice-president and head, people management, National Stock Exchange of India Ltd, Mumbai, mediates, not by providing solutions or taking sides and playing politics, but by lending people a punching bag to let out steam, getting the dialogue going, but leaving the players to work out the solution. And in the rare case of an impasse, the leader makes tough calls with the organization’s best interest in mind.

Saba Adil, head of human resources at AEGON Religare Life Insurance Co. Ltd, Mumbai, too believes that senior leadership plays an important role in promoting an open organizational culture, devoid of bureaucracy and free from a complex web of hierarchy. While conflicts cannot be obviated completely, such openness is conducive to keeping communication channels open and well-oiled, thus creating a climate that is favourable for conflict resolution. She explains that the architectural layout of their office, where closed cabins have given way to open cubicles, sets the tenor for this openness by toning down the hierarchical barriers and making senior managers more accessible. In addition, Let’s Chat, an online forum, and Inform, a monthly management meeting at AEGON with employees, further promote openness by providing employees opportunities to engage with the management team by posing questions, voicing concerns and making suggestions.

“The better able team members are to engage, speak, listen, hear, interpret and respond constructively, the more likely their teams are to leverage conflict, rather than be levelled by it," authors Runde and Flanagan state in Becoming a Conflict Competent Leader. Global analytical company Credit Rating Information Services of India Ltd (Crisil) has taken a page from this insight in the form of the New Leader Assimilation programme, facilitated by human resources, that supports a leader’s transition to a new team. Suchitra Bhaskar, director, learning and organisational development, at Crisil in Mumbai, explains that this transition is inherently difficult as both the new leader and the team go through the travails of understanding each other in terms of working styles, perspectives and goals. The programme not only offers the leader support in the form of a mentor, but also facilitates a dialogue between the leader and his new team in a non-threatening environment, which goes a long way towards aligning them with mutually agreed goals and understanding their challenges in working effectively.

Charu Sabnavis is the director of Delta Learning, a human resources consulting and training company.

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