As the world comes to terms with the aftermath of the full impact of COVID-19, it’s safe to say that the way we interact, work and do business has changed permanently for the foreseeable future.
In addition to adhering to new standards of interaction when doing business, compulsory lockdowns across the globe have forced majority of businesses to institute unavoidable firm-wide ‘work-from-home’ (WFH) procedures and systems that have primarily replaced face-to-face interactions with virtual offices and meetings.
Conflict is inevitable in any organisation. Where more than one human being exists there will be disagreements, some of which can have costly consequences. Every organisation wants a healthy bottomline. Employee engagement, team performance and productivity all have a direct impact on profitability. But what happens when work conditions include a global pandemic, lockdowns, virtual meetings, a downward spiral in profits and the inability to resolve issues face-to-face?
Test of Character
COVID-19 has tested the character and mettle of most leaders across the world. Working under never-before-experienced conditions has brought out either the best or the worst in leadership at all levels. Not only are leaders under pressure to be seen and heard loud and clear from behind computer screens, but the characters of employees, suppliers and even business partners have also become more visible behind the glare of cameras in virtual meetings.
Whilst many leaders and business owners do their best to avoid conflict or avoid dealing with it altogether, COVID-19 has reduced or removed the luxury of delaying resolutions.
Some of the best leaders in the world are highly intuitive, and are well versed in understanding human behaviour – body language and tone – whether they are interacting in-person or virtually over phone or video calls. They have a knack for spotting potential conflict, recognising and understanding the nature of any that arise, and possessing the decisiveness to initiate or implement a conflict resolution strategy that meets organisational objectives. Although in some cases, the only way to end conflict is to part ways, an effective resolution framework can help save a business or strategic alliances for future benefit.
The Cost of Conflict in Leadership
Having an effective conflict resolution system for leadership goes beyond the standard HR reporting system to look at leadership engagement through the lenses of internal communication, company culture, emotional intelligence and community.
The heart and soul of any organisation is heavily influenced by leadership. Leaders drive vision, inspire growth and lead the way to sustainable growth and development. The true cost of unresolved conflict in leadership is much more than the leaders’ egos and pockets. When employees work under leaders they perceive to lack the capacity to resolve conflict, what arises is a lack of trust, insubordination, disengagement, high talent attrition, damage to reputational capital, and in very severe cases, a complete shutdown of projects or businesses.
Effective conflict resolution
Conflict resolution is a way for two or more parties to find a peaceful solution to a disagreement among them. When a dispute arises, often the best course of action is negotiating to resolve the disagreement. Where there is no chance of resolution, a mutual agreement can be reached to ensure organisational objectives are maintained and disruption to business is minimised.
If you ever have to handle conflict in your leadership role, especially if you have to share a grievance, here are four key considerations that can help you navigate the process more effectively, whether you are doing it in-person or virtually.
1. Acknowledge the Conflict
Identify specifically what the conflict is about. Get it clear in your own mind by writing down what your key grievance is about, remembering to remain objective. Approach the other party about it and agree to discuss the conflict, and when to discuss it so you can schedule a meeting. This scenario will happen in an ideal world. Remember that the other party may not be as receptive as you would like. This is where it’s important to possess effective communication skills and to cultivate a culture where leaders are receptive to feedback.
2. Discuss the Conflict
State that you are interested in a solution. The worst thing that can happen in a conflict resolution meeting is going round and round in circles with no objective to find a solution. Always remember that, “It’s not what you say, but how you say it” plays a big role here. Tone, pitch and body language (especially facial expressions) matter. Discuss what you have observed the other person saying or doing, or the situation that you have observed, and the impact this is having on performance and productivity. In as much as you want your opinion to be heard and understood, invite the other person to respond, and actively listen to what they have to say. Listen to understand before responding. Ask questions to clarify and repeat back what you have understood. Make sure you are both clear about the situation before moving forward.
3. Agree on a Solution
In an ideal scenario, a solution that is mutually beneficial means the issue is resolved quickly. However, where this is a challenge, discuss alternative solutions. Decide on a mutually acceptable solution as well as the next steps to be implemented in a timely manner. Thank the other person for their commitment. If it is a complex issue, as can be the case, sometimes, start with small successes and build on this. Agree to use an engagement advisor or mediator if necessary.
4. Follow Up
The word, “OK,” is not always a guarantee that the conflict has been resolved. Some use it to end the process due to discomfort. Therefore, follow up is important. Follow up to ensure the conflict has been resolved and the working relationship has not been adversely impacted. Invite feedback on how effective the other party felt the meeting was. If necessary, define communication and relationship boundaries moving forward whilst remembering that organisational objectives need to be met at all times. In a worst-case scenario where the working relationship cannot be salvaged, end on a note of respect and honour despite how you feel. The business world is like a revolving door – you never know when you will meet again.