By Christine Zalar
How conflict is addressed in an organization sets the stage for whether it is divisive or constructive. Leaders should embrace conflict as it can be pivotal in a team’s maturation and lead to increased organizational productivity.
Conflict and debate are an inevitable part of a business environment that is increasingly complex, polarizing and volatile. Without some degree of conflict, nothing changes, and people acquiesce to the status quo. Channeling conflict through structured, healthy debate is a leader’s opportunity to harness diverse perspectives within the organization into fact-based decision making, better outcomes and improved productivity.
A foundation of trust in fire/EMS
Patrick Lencioni’s book, “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team,” identifies the first dysfunction in a team as lack of trust and the second, fear of conflict. Healthy debate and positive conflict management is entirely dependent on an ethos of trust. The organization’s cultural DNA defines the level of trust employees experience, and how “safe” they feel in communicating their perceptions.
Building trust begins at the basic human interaction level – helping people to get to know one another. Does the organization intentionally facilitate opportunities for people to have time to better know and appreciate one another and, therefore, become more comfortable to openly share their perspectives? Leaders who have an established pattern of genuinely getting to know their teams and listening to their opinions and ideas will be better positioned to constructively navigate conflict because the employees were engaged before the conflict arose.
Establish the rules of conflict resolution
People avoid conflict because they’ve been more accustomed to the negative pathways it tends to take: sparring through highly charged, emotional agendas; personal attacks because of differing views; and polarized messages, such as, “if I’m right, you must be wrong.” These negative pathways are not uncommon in an organization that lacks trust. A leader must recognize the likelihood that people will come to the conflict discussion with some of these negative biases – and therefore, the leader must be prepared to confront them in constructive manner.
To ensure successful conflict management requires having a structured process encouraging respectful, honest discussion and active, open listening from all participants. Leaders must promote an integrative approach to identifying a common goal, rather than allow the pursuit of individual goals. The conflict resolution process must include ground rules for healthy debate and participant commitment to support the decisions that result.
Managing differences of opinion does not mean to dismiss them, rather it requires focusing those differences on the team’s common goals. Leaders should establish the conflict resolution process with the team before needing to set it into motion and support the process with related training and tools, so each person can be prepared to participate and contribute. The training should include coursework in communication skills, developing interpersonal relationships, constructive feedback, problem solving and conflict management.
Conflict is a good thing in fire/EMS
Conflict can be good when constructively focused achieving a common goal. A leader can leverage the circumstances that created the conflict toward beneficial outcomes for the team members and for the organization. For example, conflict can be the stimulus for new ideas that might not have been previously thought of, some of which may be rather innovative solutions to the problem.
While it’s uncomfortable to have someone challenge our ideas, it is an opportunity to learn. Conflict can solve circuitous problems and provide an opportunity to team members to expand and improve their communication skills. Organizations and individuals grow through questioning, analyzing, negotiating and fine tuning their goals and objectives. In this regard, conflict can lead to creativity and reinvention – it can be a powerful means of fostering constructive self-examination.
Listening is an important life skill that will be heavily relied upon during healthy debate and structured conflict resolution. Engaged listening requires discipline to control the natural impulse to speak and forces one to be more patient while differing perspectives are shared – especially those that you may not agree with. More importantly, attentive listening conveys to the other person(s) that what they are communicating is important to you, and that you are genuinely taking in their input – each of which are great catalysts for successful conflict resolution.
Conflict resolution also teaches flexibility. People that are on the opposing platforms that led to the conflict must be open to adjusting perspectives to reach the best overall outcome for the organization. There is a degree of negotiating required to ensure the key principles from each side are incorporated, and the leader that is more open and flexible will be seen by the team as being fair, intelligent and a person who inspires adaptability.
Unresolved conflict will distract leaders and employees from the work at hand, and their interpersonal effectiveness. Those engaged in the resolution are more likely to buy in to the decisions/outcome and bring their colleagues on board. The resolution process builds collaboration and cooperation among team.
“Conflict allows the team to come to terms with difficult situations, to synthesize diverse perspectives, and to make sure solutions are well thought-out,” says Liane Davey, author of “You First: Inspire Your Team to Grow Up, Get Along, and Get Stuff Done.” “Conflict is uncomfortable, but it is the source of true innovation, and also a critical process in identifying and mitigating risks.”
Leaders must keep in mind that conflict is a result of differences of opinion which are inevitable and useful. Conflicting opinions amongst team members are valuable in identifying underlying assumptions and expanding the problem-solving informational base. More importantly, the various perspectives reveal what matters most to the team, thus providing the leader with greater understanding of the factors that can lead to a shared, positive resolution. Conflict occurs in every organization, and if leaders and their teams have prepared for it, successful resolution will occur.
About the author
Christine Zalar is a founding partner at the EMS/public safety consulting firm Fitch & Associates. Widely recognized as an expert in air medical services she also leads the firm’s most complex hospital consultations for the firm.