Over the past decade my co-author, Tim Flanagan, and I explored and developed the concept of conflict competence in a series of books published by Wiley and the Center for Creative Leadership. We noticed that leaders and managers had considerable difficulty addressing conflict effectively, which cost their organizations dearly. We set out to determine what was needed to improve people’s ability to manage and resolve workplace conflict.
We developed a model of individual conflict competence incorporating cognitive, emotional, and behavioral awareness and skills. In each of these areas we set out key components that would improve an individual’s capacity and ability to manage conflict.
In the cognitive sphere, we included several key elements including gaining a basic understanding of the dynamics of conflict, appreciating the value of managing conflict effectively, and becoming more aware of one’s own attitudes about conflict and the ways in which we individually respond to it.
On the emotional side, we focused on helping people understand what triggers their emotions in the first place and develop practices for cooling down and slowing down so they weren’t acting under duress.
We used the Dynamic Conflict Model developed by Capobianco, Davis, and Kraus to explore constructive behavioral responses to conflict. These include, among others, perspective taking, expressing emotions, and creating solutions. The model also described destructive behaviors that escalate and prolong conflicts. From a behavioral perspective individuals were encouraged to use more of the constructive and less of the destructive responses.
In addition to individual conflict competence, we also looked at organizational conflict competence. In the context of teams this involved creating the right climate for managing conflict. Use of team agreements and norms to spell out ‘how we want to treat each other when conflict arises” were a central part of this broader view.
New Elements of Conflict Competence
Over time we have discovered new skill areas and resources that are important to add to the conflict competence model. In this article, I will look at three of these: power and conflict, conflict and culture, and conflict and resilience.
In programs that I’ve taught, people often ask how to manage a conflict with their boss or someone else who is more powerful than themselves. Until recently not much was available to address their question. A new book by Peter Coleman and Robert Ferguson takes a comprehensive look at power and conflict. It provides ideas for both those who have less power and those in positions of greater power. These insights help someone analyze their situation and develop specific plans of action in conflicts. With the availability of this new resource, I believe a new element should be added to the cognitive aspect of conflict competence, namely, incorporating an analysis of the power differentials in play when developing an approach to resolving workplace conflicts.
Our original books covered ways in which cultural differences lead to conflict and complicate its resolution. New research has deepened understanding about how people can improve their ability to manage intercultural conflicts by improving their general intercultural competence. Our organizations are increasingly multicultural themselves and their interchanges are ever more international in scope. Improving one’s ability to manage intercultural conflicts must now be recognized as an added element of conflict competence.
Conflict may be the greatest source of workplace stress and it can have profound effects on both the physical and psychological health of leaders, managers and employees. Our conflict competence model encourages people to engage constructively with others to resolve differences. Yet, this itself can be a stressful process. It becomes essential for people to improve their resilience as part of dealing with conflict. On the one hand, improved resilience helps people bounce back from the stress caused by conflict interactions. My colleague, Pierre Naquet with the Institute for Workplace Dynamics in Paris has pointed out that another key benefit of resilience is providing individuals with the confidence and energy to be able to sustain successful conflict discussions.
The conflict competence model will continue to expand and adapt to help individuals and their organizations meet the challenge of managing conflicts effectively. To become conflict competent though, takes more than simply understanding the model. It takes introspection, training, practice, and perseverance to gain the benefits that come from this critical competency.