When most people think about conflict at work, their minds go somewhere negative. After years of dealing with managers and leaders who don’t understand good conflict management practice, they have (understandably) formed that opinion that conflict at work should be avoided. But, healthy conflict is a linchpin of growth and progress. It’s rooted in our very genetic code. Conflict is how evolution chooses the most suited to survive and move forward. It’s who we are.
In a company with good conflict management skills, conflict is used to bring out hard truths, smoke out problems, and decide on the most effective course of action. poorly managed conflict, though, can be damaging to everyone involved and the company as a whole.
As a trained conflict resolution and EOS® Implementer, I dare say I have a good handle on what it takes to healthily solve conflicts in the work place. This guide will briefly touch on the causes of unhealthy conflict resolution in the workplace before moving into a full guide on how to use the Entrepreneurial Operating System‘s Level 10 Meeting™ as a conflict management tool in your business.
Good Conflict Management vs Bad Conflict Management
All conflict gets managed in some way. From outright arguing with coworkers to shareholder voting to HR intervention. Spotting extremely bad conflict management isn’t always easy, though. Let’s take a look at some of the ways good and bad conflict management differ:
The Difficulty With Good Conflict Management At Work
Of course everyone wants to be good at conflict management. You don’t often run into people that say, “I wish I were worse at solving problems. It would just be really great if, when people disagreed, I had the skills to make it ten times worse.” People naturally want to be better at solving these kinds of problems, because they instinctively see the value in the skill set. So, why do so few people ever actually master conflict management at work?
I wish I could give you a single answer, but the truth is that every team struggles with conflict management for their own reasons. Teams naturally think their conflict resolution problems come from personal failures. This can be true. However, more often than not, the real problem is that the team doesn’t have a conflict resolution process in place.
I know this sounds strange, but consider the last conflict you had to confront. The loose plan you had for handling that conflict was most likely a set of unspoken and totally assumed rules about how to speak with this person and what they needed from you. You had your own internalized set of rules and they had theirs, before the conflict even started. And, each time one of you violated the others’ rule set, the conflict became less about the issue and more about the person.
Conflict management process does what generations of social instincts can’t. It creates agreed upon rules for addressing conflict, so that the issue at hand can be the focus, not the person with whom you disagree.
The EOS Level 10 Meeting As A Conflict Management Tool
I’ve written at length about the Level 10 Meeting. if you haven’t heard of the Level 10 Meeting, you can read a brief guide to the process here.
If your business is currently using the Entrepreneurial Operating System, you can improve its effectiveness by following my 5-part EOS Level 10 Meeting Guide. The guide outlines the key mistakes teams make and how to avoid them.
How does the EOS Level 10 Meeting help facilitate healthy conflict? More to the point, how can YOU start managing conflict better with the Level 10?
1: Immediate Reporting and Accountability
After the Segue, the first 20 minutes of a Level 10 Meeting are focused on reporting. If you have experienced an L10, you know that the team is able to report every critical number and project update at lightning speed. If you haven’t seen an L10 Meeting, it’s pretty spectacular. Every person at the table has a set of numbers and projects for which they are accountable. You go around the table reporting with very succinct answers. If you’re responsible for hitting a certain number, you just say the goal number and the actual number (goal: ten sales meetings; actual: eight.) If you are accountable for a project you just say, “on track” or ,”off track.”
The beautiful part of this is that the team can update each other quickly enough that it’s reasonable to do so every week. When it only takes 20 minutes to do the reporting that most teams do over the course of hours (if they’re lucky) you can do it more regularly. When you report more regularly, you bring up problems quickly, before they fester. The team then addresses them to prevent the long-term contempt that comes from seeing conflict go unaddressed.
2: Using the “2 Deciders” Rule
One of the hardest part of conflict management is getting the involved parties to support the resolution. During an EOS Implementation we go through the process of building and Accountability Chart. Unlike an organizational chart, the Accountability Chart™ defines the roles needed to make the company successful and what the person holding that role is accountable for.
A big step in the building this tool is asking if the person sitting in that chair GWC’s that role. That means Get It, Want It, Have Capacity to do It. We do so by asking the team to verify that they trust this person to be good at their job. It’s not exactly that simple, but that’s the basic idea. The point is that, at the end of the exercise, everyone has agreed to trust that person to do their job.
How does this apply to the Level 10?
First, it doesn’t matter how great your conflict management skills are. If people in the room don’t trust each other to be great at their jobs, unhealthy conflict will be a regular part of your work week.
But, you’ve already built your Accountability Chart and your team is still having trouble with supporting the decision. So, what’s the problem?
Sometimes a team can trust the person making the decision, but not feel like the decision addresses the problem. This can be the result of miscommunication of the original issue, a discussion getting off track, or any number of things. You fix it by using the “2-decider” rule.
When you identify an issue, before you do anything to actually solve it, point out the two people in that room responsible for deciding when a solution has been reached. The first person is the person who has the power to fix the issue (financial issues going to the CFO, etc). The second person is the one who originally brought the issue up. They have the authority to say that a proposed solution either does or does not address the original issue.
Mind you, they may or may not have authority on what the solution should be. That depends on their job and the specific issue. However, they do have the right to say, “no, I don’t think that addresses my problem.” This one small change will significantly increase your team’s willingness to commit to the solutions.
3: Saying It In A Sentence
Speaking in generalities almost always leads to miscommunication. Worse, it can lead to criticism. When miscommunication happens in the workplace, you’ve already negatively impacted the business by creating inefficiency. But, the real damage comes from how this miscommunication impacts conflict management. People who are disagreeing over something based on misunderstanding will inevitably feel like their opinion isn’t being heard. The inability of the two parties to compromise (because they are talking about two different things) can quickly become a toxic environment for further conflict management.
Using the “say it in a sentence” rule that drives the EOS Level 10 is a perfect way to avoid this. When you ask your team to “say it in a sentence” you are putting a needle point focus on what exactly the team is going to discuss. You’re preventing these kinds of misunderstandings without lifting a finger.
4: Need for a Decision
Shutting down is a major part of unhealthy conflict. When a person doesn’t wish to continue a discussion, they can often simply refuse to come to a decision. Sometimes this is an obvious shutting down, like walking out of the room. In a workplace setting shutting down more often comes in the form of delaying a decision. However it looks, shutting down leads to long term discontent and a lack of support for the decision making process.
The Identify, Discuss, Solve model of the Level 10 Meeting is your primary asset for preventing shut downs. The 60 minutes your team is using to solve issues is laser focused on creating immediate action items, a to-do that addresses the original issue.
A good conflict manager uses this focus on a solution to prevent shutting down. If the discussion must end with a decision, then all parties need to lay their information / opinion on the table now or forever hold their peace.
Meet the Founder
Jeff Whittle founded and launched Whittle & Partners in 2011. Before that, Jeff practiced law in Dallas for 15 years and has an additional 20 years of executive business experience. He has run businesses ranging from startups to 300-employee operations.