Business & Non-Profit Organizations: How to Manage Internal Conflict & Why It's Really Important

Most people don’t like conflict. That’s why most of us avoid it. CEOs and other organizational leaders privately admit that fear of conflict is a serious problem that is rarely acknowledged in the C-suite. Conflict avoidance is a false, short-lived reprieve. It does not bring good to anyone because it does not solve underlying problems, which fester and grow more toxic - and potentially explosive - over time. Make no mistake: people who feel angry, but don’t address it, don’t forget about it; they grow resentful - a reaction that feeds on itself.

All sorts of relationships are damaged by fear of conflict. In business, conflict avoidance silences good ideas, divides people, and deprives leaders of the information they need to manage and lead. Organizational cultures must allow for safe, productive discussions of contentious issues. Otherwise, failure will surely follow.

Here are a few tips to help you address conflict earlier rather than later in your organization:

1. Watch your assumptions about appearances. What may appear as conflict may not be. Try to understand what drives the wants and desires of others. What are their goals? For example, two people may want recognition for the success of a project for different reasons - to maintain or develop relationships with clients or vendors, or to access resources or funding opportunities, or to be promoted. Ask neutral questions such as, “Help me understand where you’re coming from” or “What’s your outcome goal?” Win-win solutions can emerge when underlying interests are revealed.

2. Don’t mistake perseverance or determination for rigidity. Most people are open to other suggestions even when they are enthusiastic or firm in their ideas. Ask, “Can I offer a different opinion?” or “Are you open for feedback?” Rather than attack their point of view, explain why you hold a contrary point of view. High-energy people may come around to your point of view and embrace it with the same level of enthusiasm and commitment.

3. Be confident. Disagreements will not “end” the relationship. People can disagree and work together (and even like each other). The more confidence you assume, the quicker issues tend to be resolved. And don’t assume you will lose the argument. Really listen to the other person’s perspective and reflect back what you hear. Speak your truth with “I” words (what I saw, what I heard, what I wrote, etc.). Never assume someone else’s intentions because you don’t really know and you will make the other person defensive.

Addressing the problem (or the person, if the person is the problem) is not that scary if we are composed, clear, and confident. As the old saying goes, “this too shall pass” - unless you avoid it.

Jeff Trueman