Managing Conflict and Creating Dialogue

Charting a course and engaging people to follow are hallmarks of effective leadership. But driving a vision or strategy into successful implementation usually means change, which can increase levels of conflict and tension, and risk derailing teams and organizations.

While there are many different models and theories to explain what makes teams effective, all have in common the principle that good teams engage regularly in open and honest communication, and good leaders (and followers) seek constantly to improve the level and quality of their dialogue with those around them.

We believe that the ability to foster dialogue is one of the most critical skills for any leader or manager, and open dialogue is really tested in times of conflict. The most effective executives are able to engage in and resolve conflict effectively, and get people moving forward. However, this skill is not effectively taught in universities or business schools, and rarely gets meaningful attention in executive development programs.

“Conflict” is any situation in which people have incompatible (or apparently incompatible) goals, interests, desires, principles or feelings. It’s impossible to remove conflict from business relationships. And in fact, we shouldn’t seek to do so, because, if managed effectively, conflict can be a great catalyst for innovation, learning, insight, relationship-building, and high levels of performance. But almost all executives can learn how better to manage conflict.

Indeed, if one examines the careers of leaders who have failed, often it was their inability or unwillingness to create and allow dialogue that led to their downfall. Such a lack of dialogue manifests itself as not appreciating the needs of constituents; failing to see the broader strategic landscape; shutting down critical feedback or input; mistaking collaboration opportunities for competition; and projecting a hubristic persona of not needing others to succeed.

We do a lot of work with teams, and we have found the Conflict Dynamics Profile (CDP) a powerful tool not just for improving conflict resolution but also for fostering better dialogue and enhancing team functioning. Designed and developed by our friends at the Center for Conflict Dynamics at Eckerd College in Florida, the CDP is an assessment instrument that provides insight into how an individual manages conflict (for good and for bad), and what sorts of situations or behaviors (i.e., “hot buttons”) may trigger ineffective conflict resolution.

Unlike other conflict assessments (for example, the classic Thomas-Kilman instrument), the CDP is behaviorally focused: it measures an individual’s constructive and destructive responses to conflict (in either a self-rater or a 360-degree version), and compares those scores to a norm group of leaders and managers.

What the instrument does, and does well, is explain what you are most likely to do in situations of conflict, for good or bad. Do you reach out to others, express your emotions appropriately, or seek to adapt and create solutions? Or do you become ultra-competitive, demean others, or withdraw? In shedding light on behaviors in times of conflict, the CDP offers clear and pragmatic insight into how you can adapt your style in times of conflict to foster more effective and productive outcomes, and what behaviors may be limiting your effectiveness.

When we use the CDP as part of executive coaching or an executive team alignment session, we seek to create individual and group self-awareness and openness that will foster more productive dialogue and team dynamics. Executives and teams come out of such sessions with a stronger understanding of what make them more or less effective in times of conflict, and with an enhanced capability to listen effectively, build trusted relationships, engage and influence others, and foster more effective dialogue.

To improve your own conflict management skills, start by being more attentive to those times when you find yourself frustrated or irritated with a colleague, client, or family member. Ask yourself: Why is this dialogue breaking down? What am I doing to improve—or reduce—the effectiveness of this interaction? How can I better manage my own behaviors in order to improve the likelihood of a successful outcome?

To develop your conflict awareness, you might take the Conflict Dynamic Profile and see how you score. You can also check out the new book from the team at the Center for Conflict Dynamics, DEVELOPING YOUR CONFLICT COMPETENCE (Jossey-Bass, 2010), written by Craig Runde and Tim Flanagan. Our colleague Mark Nevins is quoted in this book on the topic of how to address and improve conflict management in senior executive teams.

If you have experienced particular challenges in dealing with conflict, or have good examples of how to improve dialogue, we’d love to hear about them. Send us a note: