Conflict Management Workshops

Conflict Management Competency

By Roger Reece

When conflict is effectively managed, it can be instrumental in solving problems and building teamwork. On the other hand, when managers and supervisors lack conflict management competency, conflict tends to take a destructive path, creating enormous problems and breaking down teamwork. The most dramatic cost of conflict management incompetency is not the litigation costs; it's the overall loss of productivity, employee engagement and teamwork.

Managers who are highly competent in managing budgets, projects and their overall missions are often deficient in the skills and behaviors required for effective conflict management. Conflict management competency requires the following behaviors:

  • Assertiveness in initiating difficult conversations
  • Objective, empathic listening
  • Avoiding the blame game
  • Asking open-ended questions
  • Directing without controlling
  • Staying centered; focusing on the desired outcome
  • Not taking comments as personal attacks
  • Converting reactions into responses
  • Negotiating win-win outcomes

Conflict Management: Skills or Behaviors?

Most managers and supervisors have attended classes in conflict management. Do they lack the skills, or are they stuck in their old habits? In some cases, they truly lack the skills, and it's up to the human resources department to provide the necessary training in interpersonal communication, coaching and conflict resolution skills. In most cases, however, they don't need more training. They need behavior coaching.

In my coaching and conflict mediation practice, I'm often called in to prevent further escalation of conflicts involving managers and employees. Invariably, after interviewing everyone involved, my attention focuses on the manager's behaviors. In most cases, managers tend to rationalize and minimize their contribution to the problem. They have a distorted view of their disruptive behaviors. This phenomenon was identified by Abraham Maslow as unconscious incompetence.

Maslow outlined four stages of learning in order to achieve competence in a given skill. Below are the four stages as they apply to a manager's conflict management competency:

  • Unconscious Incompetence
    The manager is incompetent in one or more of the conflict management skills, but doesn't know it. Unconsciously incompetent managers tend to blame others for the results of their own incompetence.
  • Conscious Incompetence
    The manager is incompetent in a conflict management skill and knows it. Consciously incompetent managers are aware of their need to learn the skill.
  • Conscious Competence
    The manager has learned the specific conflict management skill, but must consciously apply the skill, or old habits may prevail.
  • Unconscious Competence
    The manager is so adept at the conflict management skill that it has become “second nature” and the manager applies the skill consistently during conflict.

The goal of conflict management training and coaching is to make managers aware of their areas of unconscious incompetence and bring them to the stage of conscious incompetence. Then we teach them the necessary skills and help them to overcome their old habits. This can only happen through conscious, deliberate practice on the part of the manager. Through practice, the manager attains conscious competence and eventually unconscious competence.

Competence vs. Competency

It should be observed that there is a subtle difference between the words competence and competency in the English language. Competence is generally associated with a skill. If an individual knows how to do something, they have achieved competence. However if managers possess conflict management skills but don't use them in their daily interactions, we would describe them as low in conflict management competency. For this reason, I include the breaking of old habits and the forming of new habits in my usage of Maslow's four-stage learning model. If managers have a conflict management skill but don't use it, I consider them to be behaviorally incompetent. And too often they are at the stage of unconscious behavioral incompetence. Conflict management competency, then, includes both skill competence and behavioral competence.

You Are Not Your Behavior

Unconsciously incompetent managers don't try to overcome their areas of incompetence. In fact, they tend to defend them. If you tell managers that they are behaviorally incompetent, they generally get defensive. The root of this problem is in the manager's identity. If I tell you you're incompetent it feels like an attack, and your natural reaction is to protect yourself by getting defensive. But if your defensiveness serves to sustain the habits you need to change in order to be competent, you have a real problem. You aren't motivated to change. But the reality is, you are not your behavior. Conflict management competency isn't about changing you. It's about changing your behavior, and that's a big difference.

Parents need to focus on the behavior of their children when disciplining. “I love you, but your behavior has to change.” Every good parent avoids identifying the behavior with the child. “You are a good boy, but your behavior is not good.”

Managers need to do the same thing when correcting the behavior of employees. Too often, employees feel like they are personally judged and criticized by their managers because of the failure of managers to differentiate the behavior from the employee.

Likewise, human resources departments need to be more proactive in focusing on the behaviors of line managers and supervisors that are in effect sabotaging conflict management efforts. The coaching intervention of the human resources department can be looked on as arbitrary, judgmental and punitive, focusing on bad managers. Conversely, behavioral coaching can be positioned as a personal growth benefit designed to advance the manager's career and overall leadership effectiveness.

Behavioral Coaching: Positioning & Marketing

As a behavior coach, defensiveness on the part of the manager I am coaching is my greatest obstacle. Timothy Galwey, in his book, “The Inner Game of Tennis,” puts it this way: “The opponent within one's own head is more formidable than the one on the other side of the net.” Once a manager abandons the defenses and really focuses on moving from conscious incompetence to conscious competence, the coaching task gets much easier. A combined training and coaching program for conflict management competency must be positioned and marketed as a program to make successful managers more successful. If it looks like a boot camp for inept managers, the job will be much more difficult.

Training + 360° Behavior Coaching = Accountability

Effective conflict management clearly requires training, but managers often respond to mandatory training programs with compliance. Showing up in a training class doesn't make you competent. 360° behavior coaching involves the manager's manager, direct reports and peers. It's immersive and quickly gets to the heart of the manager's areas of unconscious incompetency. Then the real work begins: practicing conscious competence. The coaching relationship is the key ingredient that assures accountability. This ingredient is generally missing in conflict management training programs where classroom training is the only vehicle for learning.

The Value of Deliberate Practice

This was driven home to me recently during a discussion I had with one of my coaching clients, a cardiologist. He told the story of how his medical practice began. After completing medical school, he began working as a cardiologist at a university hospital. During medical school he had observed many open-heart surgeries, but now it was time to actually perform a surgery on a real live patient. He was mentored by a surgeon who had years of experience. After preparing the patient for surgery in the operating room, he looked down at the beating heart as his mentor handed him the scalpel. “You do it,” the young cardiologist pleaded. “Let me observe.” His mentor responded firmly, “That's how it worked in medical school. Now it's time for you to practice medicine.” Then he remarked, “There's no mistake that you can make that I can't fix.”

At that point, all I could imagine was the helpless patient on the table who was about to be practiced on. But then I thought about all the employees who are being practiced on by professional managers in their management practices. That was an aha moment for me. Actually I got two aha's from the story:

  • Aha #1
    If I ever have open heart surgery I will find out how long the cardiologist has been practicing.
  • Aha #2
    There's a big difference between deliberate practice and repetition that reinforces old behaviors.

Managers can attend conflict management training classes and then reinforce their old behaviors for years. They are involved in some form of conflict every day, but this kind of practice does nothing but reinforce unconscious incompetencies. In my conflict management training classes, I've often heard the comment, “I've had a lot of this kind of training – I already know this stuff.” It's very clear that in these cases, the training becomes a barrier to learning. My response is, “It's not what you know that counts… it's what you do that makes the difference.”

Deliberate practice is highly focused on using behaviors that are uncomfortable, difficult and unnatural for the manager. Deliberate practice is a real-time activity that requires self awareness, self management, social awareness and relationship management (the four foundational elements of emotional intelligence). Deliberate practice works best when the manager knows a coach will ask how the difficult conversation went. Deliberate practice also works best when the manager and coach can develop a strategy for the difficult conversation beforehand. Without coaching, it's very likely that the manager's practice will amount to managerial insanity (repeating the same behaviors, expecting a different result).

Conscious Competence: Overcoming Blind Spots

Every manager and supervisor has conflict management blind spots that lie at the root of their unconscious and conscious incompetencies. These blind spots didn't occur overnight. They have been there for a lifetime, and they won't be overcome overnight. Overcoming these blind spots requires a change in perception and focused, deliberate practice. A few of the behaviors that represent major conflict management blind spots are:

  • Over-reliance on authority power
    There are essentially four types of power that managers can use to influence the behavior of another person during conflict:
    1. Authority Power – the power inherent in their title and place in the organizational hierarchy.
    2. Positional Power – the political power they have, based on who they know, who they report to, and who will support their behaviors.
    3. Knowledge Power – the power they have based in their knowledge, technical expertise and the sources of information they have access to.
    4. Personal Power – their ability to change the behavior of another person without using any of the other power bases.
    Managers who rely too heavily on their authority power create unnecessary dissonance in the people they manage. Because they have reinforced this behavior throughout their careers, they believe that this is good management. Unfortunately, because they have failed to deliberately practice personal power during conflict over the years, they don't have much of it. This results in an ever-widening area of unconscious incompetence as they move up the hierarchical ladder.
  • Conflict avoidance
    This behavior often stems from a personality or behavioral style that is conflict-averse. Anyone can learn to be more assertive and confront conflict appropriately, but when the manager has followed the path of least resistance for long enough, this avoidance behavior results in a huge area of unconscious incompetence that sabotages conflict management efforts.
  • Too much telling; not enough listening
    Many managers believe strongly that they see the situation correctly, that they have all the answers and that they are right. They “tell it like it is.” Employees aren't given the opportunity to vent or to express their feelings. Some employees are hesitant to express themselves out of fear that anything they say will be held against them. So the manager resolves the conflict by doing all the talking. But effective conflict management requires patience on the part of the manager. Open-ended questions and listening are the most effective tools in establishing the kind of dialogue that leads to a real resolution. Unfortunately, some managers are unconsciously incompetent when it comes to these skills and behaviors.
  • Reactive behavior during conflict
    Reactive behavior can quickly derail a manager's attempts at managing employee conflict. If the reactive behavior is limited to the employee, and the manager is skilled at responding appropriately, there is a good chance that the outcome will be positive. But it's common to see managers doing much of the reacting themselves, while using their authority power to legitimize their behavior. Some managers run the full gamut of passive, aggressive and passive-aggressive reactions during employee counseling, while forcing employees into compliance, armed with the authority of an employee counseling form.
  • Failure to make the empathy shift during conflict
    Effective conflict managers have the ability to shift from their position to a place of empathy with employee during coaching or counseling. This allows them to explore interests, ask the right questions, listen, and direct the conversation toward a resolution. A lack of empathy generally keeps the manager and the employee focused on their polarized positions. A blind spot in this area dramatically reduces a manager's conflict management competency.
  • Nagging instead of negotiating
    Nagging is telling someone what you don't like about their behavior or what you want them to do. Nagging is an ineffective way of managing conflict. Effective conflict management involves the negotiation process, during which both parties discuss interests, explore options and then agree about how things will be going forward. Some managers nag their employees and then, when their frustration level goes over the top, will write them up for non-compliance. This behavior pattern creates dissonance that leads to continual conflict and represents a key area of unconscious incompetence in managers.
  • Failure to coach employees through conflict
    Managers must be coaches in order to effectively manage employee conflict. The coaching methods that work with one employee don't work with another. Coaching is an art and a skill that every manager needs. Effective managers establish coaching relationships with their direct reports, so that when conflict arises, they are in a position to manage it. Non-coaching managers manage employee conflict from a position of unconscious incompetence.

To expect managers to overcome their own blind spots spontaneously is to expect the blind to lead the blind. Managers need help. Amazingly, managers can attend conflict management training and believe that their course certificates make them competent conflict managers. Their employees know better, but their only recourse is to suck it up or escalate the conflict.

When Employees suck it up

Some employees have been sucking it up for so long that they don't know how to communicate directly with any manager (although they may freely talk about their managers with others). This is the formula for personal powerlessness and victimhood. These are the ingredients for unresolved conflict and a breakdown in teamwork and productivity. Unfortunately, this produces a circular process that breeds hostility and employee disengagement.

According to the Gallup Organization, as of March 2009, only about 30% of the employees in the U.S workforce were actively engaged in their work. More than 50% were not engaged, and nearly 20% were actively disengaged (i.e., undermining the efforts of engaged co-workers). Although it's not within the scope of this article to explore these statistics, it is apparent that much of this is due to unresolved conflict and employees sucking it up.

Employees who are not engaged or actively disengaged (roughly 70% of the U.S. workforce) need coaching and effective conflict management. If their managers aren't providing it, who will? Most managers are unconsciously incompetent in their coaching behaviors. Many don't know how. A number of those who have coaching skills don't do it because they're too busy. Managers must become competent in conflict management skills and behaviors so they can set the right example and transfer those skills and behaviors to their employees through the coaching process.

Leading the charge

It's up to the human resources department to lead the charge toward more effective conflict management training, coaching and mediation programs. Start a pilot. Work with a core group of willing managers as a proof of concept. Measure your results. Wherever people work together, there will be conflict. Help your managers and supervisors face their unconscious incompetence and begin practicing conflict management competency.


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