Conflict management is a critical skill in both your personal and professional life. Conflicts inevitably arise in the workplace (especially in an industry like consulting where deadlines are tight). The ways to manage conflicts differ based on many dimensions, including: the criticality of the issue, the importance of the relationship, and time sensitivity.
Strong conflict management skills are critical to master, especially in the workplace, given you will continue to work with the colleagues (or clients) with whom you disagree. As such, you may need to adapt your conflict management style to make sure you are able to maintain the relationship post-conflict. In fact, per Richard Shell, a Wharton Professor, a successful conflict resolution may provide the foundation for a deepening relationship.
Let’s dive into a discussion on different conflict management styles; then, we’ll provide tips and tricks to manage conflicts successfully.
Table of Contents
- Conflict Management Definition
- Conflict Management Styles
- Conflict Management Strategies
- Conflict Management Examples
- Managing Conflict in the Workplace
- Conflict Management Skills
- Conflict Management Training
Conflict Management Definition
While the exact conflict management definition differs depending on the source, the overall spirit of the definition remains the same. Namely, conflict management seeks to resolve differences between parties in a way that is acceptable to all parties. It is important to note that in conflict management, you are aiming to find an “acceptable solution,” not the “best solution.” This is a key nuance to pick up as you think about how to manage conflicts.
- Harvard Law School: “long-term management of intractable disputes so that they do not escalate out of control and the worst cases, potentially become violent” (source here)
- White paper entitled “Conflict Management” by Yasmyne Ronquillo, Vickie Ellis, and Tammy Butler: “Conflict management seeks to resolve the disagreement or conflict with positive outcomes that satisfy all individuals involved or is beneficial” (source here)
Conflict Management Styles
As mentioned, each party looks to find acceptable solutions when they resolve a conflict. The threshold for what constitutes an acceptable solution differs based on the situation. For example, in consulting, you may:
- Disagree with your engagement manager over how to format a slide
- Disagree with your engagement manager on key takeaways from crucial data that will inform your overall client recommendation
Clearly, there are a lot of different aspects that can come into play in these situations. For example, key considerations include:
- Issue importance, e.g., is having an optimal solution a nice to have, or is it fundamental to your recommendation / analysis?
- Relationship importance, e.g., is this somebody you will see one time or someone you will have to work with repeatedly?
- Time limits, e.g., when is the data being read out? Do you have the time to have a longer conversation to talk about your point of view?
- Power over issue, e.g., who ultimately has accountability and responsibility over the quality of the output?
The framework below shows different conflict management styles, based on the situation:
Notably, one person can adopt multiple conflict management styles depending on the situation.
Conflict Management Strategies
Conflict Management Examples
As mentioned above, conflict management skills are critical in consulting. Here are a few examples that show conflict management in practice.
- You disagree with your manager on the recommendation for the client
- Potential style to adapt: Collaborating (and accommodating if needed)
- Example tactics to take:
- Finding a 30-minute block for you and your manager to talk through the recommendation
- Bringing clear evidence that supports your recommendation (market research, model outputs, etc.)
- Adopting an open mind and listening closely to your manager’s rationale
- Problem solving together on a solution you both feel comfortable with
- Accommodating when needed, given your manager has the ultimate accountability / responsibility for the solution
- One of the clients is 2 weeks delayed in pulling a data request, putting your timeline at risk
- Potential style: Compromising
- Example tactics to take:
- Breaking down the data request into smaller “chunks”
- Prioritizing the data request with the client (e.g., asking for 3 of the 5 data requests)
- Determining alternative data requests that may be “good enough” and easier for the client to pull
Managing Conflict in the Workplace
Tips to managing conflict in the workplace include:
- Address the issue (if it is important) and don’t let it boil over
- Find the right time and place, e.g., a safe space where you have time to talk about your differences at length
- Have a game plan going into the discussion, including the style you plan to adapt and what an acceptable solution looks like
- Utilize top conflict management skills – see below
- Practice / drill conflict management skills
Conflict Management Skills
Given the multi-faceted way to address conflict in the workplace, there are several conflict management skills that are important to know. Top skills and traits include:
- Active listening and emotional intelligence: Enable you to take both verbal and non-verbal cues to understand the other party’s point of view and the “why” behind their position
- Calm and clear communication: Enables you to explain your point of view in a succinct manner and leave emotions out of the conversation; this reduces the risk of escalating the conflict
- Limited ego: Enables you to apologize for miscommunication and admit your mistakes
- Eye contact and body language: Builds trust between parties
Conflict Management Training
Conflict management training programs include:
- Conflict Transformation from Emory (see here)
- Conflict Resolution Certificate from Cornell University (see here)
- Develop Conflict Management and Resolution Skills from LinkedIn (see here)
- Conflict often appears in the first place because of unclear communication. Work with Management Consulted on a communication training for your teams to ensure they are cutting through the fluff, elevating key takeaways, and building alignment.
Conflict management is a critical skill to master in the workplace. The style you take to address conflicts differs based on the situation at hand. For example, the importance of the conflict and the time available to address the conflict can impact the style you choose to adapt. Regardless of the scenario, it is important to leverage these conflict management strategies (e.g., active listening and emotional intelligence) to achieve alignment, gain buy-in, motivate action from your stakeholders, and, ultimately, become a top performer!