Conflict is sure to become apparent at some point or another in any organization. It is important to recognize and purposefully orchestrate conflict resolution and/or conflict management while keeping in mind the differences between the two.

In fact, I often discuss a point I make called “miscommunication costs.”

Miscommunication Costs: The costs incurred as a result of mistakes, false blame, lack of potential communication, and consequent lack of motivation that are the result of miscommunication in any social structure. It is the difference between a team’s peak performance and minimum expectations.

Miscommunications always drive conflict in some way, and it is inevitable in any social structure or organization that employs more than a single person.

It is often said that every conflict that ever occurs is a result of a difference in values. Values are the basis on which we project our own perceptions of the world, and having different values can certainly cloud our reasoning and cause us to perceive other people’s “realities” as wrong.

Without getting too far into the philosophy of conflict itself, I’d like you to keep in mind this point – that values are always the sole conflict aggregators. By realizing this, you can begin to look for the broken pieces that a conflict produces in order to resolve or manage it more effectively.

So, what’s the difference between conflict resolution and conflict management?

Conflict Resolution

In the Change Manager’s Handbook, conflict resolution is defined as the reduction, termination, or elimination of conflict. Sounds simple enough. It is definitely valuable where conflict may have an entirely negative impact, but that is the key consideration.

Conflict does not always have an entirely negative impact.

In many ways, conflict can be good for the progress of an organization. Learning how and why this occurs is absolutely critical.

Without recognizing what is useful and not-useful conflict, you can never predictably engage in conflict resolution and conflict management in a way that optimizes your organization’s performance.

Conflict Management

Conflict management doesn’t resolve conflicts, terminate, or reduce them – at least it isn’t directly meant to. Conflict management is about the designing of strategies that aim to minimize dysfunctional conflict and maximize functional or constructive conflict.

Usually, the end goal of conflict management is better learning, updated systems or processes, and a more open-minded culture within your organization. All of which are inherently positive and useful factors to organizational life.

It is the duty of managers and leaders to recognize whether a conflict is dysfunctional or constructive. How do you do this? What are the keys to look for? Let’s consider these points in terms of team members, culture, and interpersonal communications.

Recognizing Good and Bad Conflict

Recognizing these key signs is the beginning of proper conflict management.
Recognizing these key signs is the beginning of proper conflict management.

Not all conflict is bad. IN fact, conflict can be one of the most effective catalysts for beneficial and meaningful change within an organization. Whether change is the result or not, it is a fact of business that change must occur. The most powerful businesses in the world today are not the same as they were even 50 years ago.

Let’s discuss the most prominent and obvious characteristics of good conflict vs. bad conflict as it relates to your organization and team members.

Sign #1: Good conflict is focused on the future. Bad conflict is focused on the past.

Generally speaking, a conversation (whether or not it is considered a conflict) that is focused on the future is focused on producing outcomes and results. This is entirely beneficial to an organization that wishes to progress through change or constructive criticism!

Good conflicts will be centered around forming a common and beneficial future for all parties involved. These conflicts bring about new ideas and reforms to systems or processes because they recognize a common future vision, something the strategic leaders of an organization are meant to accomplish.

Bad conflicts focus on the past. The reason this is debilitating is because the past cannot change, the past no longer has any say over an organization’s present or future state of affairs. Therefore, focusing on the past becomes a bottleneck to constructive conflict.

It never helps to dwell on something, knowing fully well that it cannot change. Trying to resolve an issue that occurred in the past is a waste of the energy and knowledge you have to do something better in the future.

Sign #2: Good conflict brings people together, bad conflict alienates and divides.

Good conflicts always naturally seek an optimal solution by considering the wants or needs of others, therefore, all people can feel heard and considered in the ultimate decision or course of the conflict.

Because good conflict is considerate of others, people are more willing to remain open-minded and express their thoughts without becoming victimized by others. One of the main points in my post on Steps to Effective Communications is the importance of open-mindedness.

“Being open-minded means you direct the conversation in no certain direction. It means you ‘go with the flow’ and are willing to accept different ideas that make up the other person’s ‘realities’.

There is no true reality, only perceptive reality. And as we know, perceptions are easily fooled. Consider this, you can never truly tell somebody they are wrong, every difference in “truth” can be based on the difference between our personal ‘realities.’ – Austin Denison, How To Communicate Effectively

Essentially, through the consideration of other people’s ideas and perspectives, group mentalities are encouraged towards dealing with the problem. Therefore, more people are helpful and willing to implement the solution as opposed to bad conflict.

Bad conflict will often alienate people by claiming that other’s needs or wants aren’t as important as somebody else’s, therefore creating a class-like system where personal importance is put into question. This is why bad conflict can polarize sets of people.

Sign #3: Good conflict focuses on issues, bad conflict focuses on people.

This one is fairly self-explanatory. We’ve all been part of a conflict at least once that made us feel as though the issue was with us and not with the actual issue. This is often a problem with generalizing conflicts and using conflict to express thoughts about an individual’s personal character.

For example, failing to make a new batch of coffee after you polished off the last one may cause people to call you “lazy, selfish, inconsiderate, etc.” when, in reality, all they want is their coffee. The reason this is a generalization is because you are the only person who knows your thought process and nature of your considerations for others. This is a small example, but the principle remains the same for larger issues.

Ryan Gottfredson, the author of Success Mindsets, makes the point that “believing a person is always doing the best that they can is a result of having a beneficial outward mindset.” Ryan Gottfredson states that outward mindsets are always beneficial and procure better relationships in life and business.

Good conflicts focus on issues, that is, the specifics of what is causing people a disservice or difficult time in their livelihoods. Bad conflicts are usually an attack on a person’s character, a generalization about the person’s beliefs, or otherwise something that personalizes and makes the victim an embodiment of an issue.

When To Resolve and When To Manage

It’s fairly simple. When a conflict is bad (focuses on past, people, or polarization) resolve it. When a conflict is good (focuses on issue, togetherness, and future) manage it.

Conflict resolution is fairly simple. Here is conflict resolution in a nutshell.

Conflict Resolution Key Points
1. Get both sides of the story without bias, listen carefully.
2. Focus on events and behavior, NOT personalities.
3. Identify the main points of disagreement. Where are the values set?
4. Focus on one area of conflict at a time.
5. Create a plan to resolve conflict.
6. Stick to the plan.

Perhaps it’s easier said than done, however, in my experience, most people have already had experience or training with proper conflict resolution. But, far less people have had experience or training with conflict management.

When a conflict is good, manage it. That is to say, allow the conflict to continue, but manage the nature of the conflict to keep it from becoming focused on past, person, or polarized. The benefits of doing so are great!

Benefits of Conflict Management
1. Increased Understanding
2. Improved Self-Awareness
3. Improved Trust (through mutual consideration)
4. Improved Creativity (togetherness; more minds and ideas)
5. Improved Group Cohesion

These are just a mere few of the many more benefits to managing good conflict, but let’s now discuss hat managing good conflict looks like.

Managing Good Conflict

Proper conflict management is always beneficial to workplace morale.

Proper conflict management can be utilized by becoming the (preferably separated/impartial) voice of reason and communication. This is exactly the skill that proper mediators and arbitrators have developed to become adept at resolving complicated (and often legal) disputes.

Mediation: a person who attempts to make people involved in a conflict come to an agreement; a go-between. (The Oxford English Dictionary)

Arbitrator: an independent person or body officially appointed to settle a dispute. (The Oxford English Dictionary)

It is important to keep in mind that, as an arbitrator or mediator, you will have to enforce certain characteristics of effective communications between the parties. The goal of enforcing the following characteristics is to keep discussions civil, non-personal, and encourage togetherness in finding the most optimal solution.

Characteristics of Beneficial Discussions:
1. Clear Emotional Barriers
2. Listen More Than You Speak
3. Remain Open-Minded
4. Show Attentiveness
5. Mind Your Body Language
6. Avoid Negative Presuppositions
7. Be Assertive, But Considerate

Conclusion

All in all, here is a quick recap of what we covered.

– There is such a thing as good conflict. Good conflict focuses on the future, the issues, and brings people together. Bad conflict focuses on people, the past, and polarizing perspectives.

– Good conflict should be managed, bad conflict should be resolved. Good conflict often acts as a catalyst for change, bad conflict doesn’t often resolve mutually beneficial issues.

– Conflict occurs as a difference in values. Recognizing these key values can help you clear misunderstandings and focus only on what matters most to the optimal solution of a conflict.

– Miscommunication costs are expensive, VERY expensive. Ask yourself, “How would my organization perform if everyone perfectly performed their designated duties?”

Hopefully, today I was able to help you recognize and resolve/manage conflicts based on their respective classifications. Being able to recognize and respond to the various natures of conflicts is entirely beneficial, and even necessary, in today’s business environments.

Hopefully, I was able to help you manage change more effectively, to get in touch with me, please call (951) 833-2987 or send me a message on my website.

Thanks for reading!

-Austin Denison is a change management consultant from Southern California and founder/CEO of Denison Success Systems LLC. He is the author of The Essential Change Management Guidebook: Master The Art of Organizational Change as well as The Potential Dichotomy: The Philosophy of a Fulfilling Life.