As I meet with corporate clients around the world to assist with management training and leadership development, one thing has become apparent: many organizations are trying to move away from a hierarchical structure to that of a matrix-style environment, with multiple bosses and more cross-functional working which is designed to improve work and processes that cut across the traditional silos of function and geography.
And while this is often a smart move, it can also lead to more conflict between employees.
For these companies, the good news is that matrix environments are dynamic, they allow for more flexibility and they provide great opportunities for individual progression and career development.
The bad news is that matrix environments can create communication difficulties, ambiguous working conditions and, ultimately, more conflict.
Matrix environments can increase complexity in working with colleagues who are in different locations, cultures, and time zones, and where communication is often done through technology rather than face-to-face. In addition, employees will often report to more than one boss. Taken together these can create a recipe for misunderstandings, competing priorities and heightened tension in the workplace.
Own it – or pay the price
Conflict is not necessarily bad for an organization. It can be a sign of commitment to the cause. So rejoice! You have passionate employees! Now just make sure that this conflict is positively addressed and resolved and everyone will be better for it.
Disagreements are healthy and normal, and if they are handled the right way, they can evolve into new ways of working together (of course, the reverse is true – if conflict is left unresolved it can fester and reoccur).
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So it is essential that company leaders and managers have the skills to manage conflict as a more regular part of work, especially in complex global or virtual environments.
4 ways to turn conflict into progress
Here are a few tips to help you turn conflict into meaningful progress.
- Recognize and flag the problem. When you’re working with colleagues in different locations, conflict can be hard to spot. Yet unless we recognize the problem and make it explicit we can’t hope to resolve it. Many teams “dance around” historic areas of conflict and learn not to discuss them. But if we never discuss them, they will never be resolved. Instill a sense that open, honest dialogue is always welcome. Encourage employees to raise their hand and say “I think we have a conflict here.”
- Remain emotionally neutral. Most conflict is based on sincere differences of understanding or opinion. We need to provide an environment where people can discuss their differences in an unemotional way so that we can understand what people want and, most importantly, why they want it. If we take the emotion out of the discussion and really listen to each other’s positions we will often find that we share some common interests.
- Create shared purpose. Addressing conflict provides some initial relief, but unless the underlying problem is resolved, it will come back. For true progress to be made, we need to dig behind the conflict to find the common purpose and build a satisfying resolution.
- Learn from it. The most important part of handling conflict in the workplace should be, obviously, to make sure that it’s a learning experience. Take note of why the conflict arose, how it was handled, and what needs to happen moving forward. Make explicit agreements on what you will do differently in future and check that people are meeting their commitments.
Many inexperienced managers would rather paper over conflict or refuse to discuss it. It is easy to understand why.
Conflict is often uncomfortable, and it’s easy to follow the path of least resistance. But the easy path isn’t necessarily the right one, and if you follow the steps outlined above you’ll be on your way to more effectively managing, or even embracing, workplace conflict.