In 2013 I decided to become a certified conflict resolution mediator. It is one of the best investments I have made in my personal development and it has been a real game changer in my work as a consultant.
And why is that?
At IT ADVISORY we usually enter the fray when an organization or business has to make strategic or complex changes in their IT organization or technology. There is usually a lot at stake and the projects will affect a lot of people. In this field of tension conflicts of interest and disagreements arise, and alliances are formed. There is nothing unnatural about this, but it means that I often rely heavily on my skills as a mediator in order to ensure progress and to help those involved in using differences of opinion constructively.
Projects and changes are conflict magnets!
Mediation is a set of skills that I think that all managers, project managers and consultants should have. Unfortunately, when it comes to conflicts, we are often faced with ignorance and reluctance. We often experience conflicts in which the parties involved have not yet realized that they have a conflict, but they are not working well together and there is a lack of cooperation.
This article is intended as a quick guide that can be shared with the parties involved in a conflict. The first step in solving a conflict is to acknowledge that it exists.
What is a conflict and what is your role in it?
A conflict can be defined as “a difference of opinion that causes tension in and between people.” Differences of opinion refers to a case, that is, the subject of the conflict (such as a difference of opinion that has to do with a specific task or the division of roles) and tension refers to the relationship between the parties involved and their inner states of mind.
Many managers think that conflict resolution has to do with fixing the case and nothing more. Although the conflict is solved, they completely overlook how the conflict may have become a destructive force in the relationships of the parties involved.
As a manager it is not your job to solve the conflict for those involved. Actually, your role is to help them solve it themselves. This is done in part by creating increased awareness of the dynamics that are in play in the specific situation.
How can you spot and analyze a (potential) conflict situation?
The conflict escalation model, which is based on the model by Friedrich Glasl, is a key tool for spotting and analyzing a conflict situation.
Each step on the staircase relates to human behavior. For example, when you observe people who are consciously avoiding each other, then they are on step three. Often the parties involved can be placed on different steps on the staircase, for example, one party experiences the case as an argument (step 2) and another party experiences it as a threat (step 6).
The conflict escalation model is a staircase, that shows the different stages in a conflict. The three lowest steps relate to the case, while the six upper steps relate to the relationship. The staircase is dynamic, and each individual step presents an opportunity to go up or down.
As a manager it is important to be able to identify where people are on the different steps because knowing that is what provides the opportunity to help those involved.
Steps 1-3: At this level, the conflict has to do with the case.
Tensions arise and the parties clash with each other, but they are still generally able to keep focus on the case without it becoming personal. Those involved are often able to manage the situation themselves and use constructive dialogue to find a lasting solution for the conflict
Conflict resolution can often be supported by you in a role as manager, through coaching, advising and supervision, as long as you are committed to being impartial when you intervene in the situation.
When there are solid relationships among members of a team, as well as a stable foundation of trust, coworkers will be able to speak without inhibition when they are on the green level of the staircase. That is to say that they can strongly disagree, argue and even take a break from each other. This kind of conflict is a dynamic resource that can be used to bring about developments and bring important new perspectives into play.
“Conflict resolution can often be supported by you in a role as manager, through coaching, advising and supervision
Steps 3-6: The focal point of the conflict shifts from attention on the facts (the case) to the relationships between the parties involved. .
As a manager, you see this when you find out that coworkers no longer talk with each other but about each other. The negative atmosphere intensifies, emotions are at the forefront and the conflict escalates. At the same time, the parties involved often take advantage of opportunities to seek sympathy from others and to build alliances in opposition against the other party.
If those involved find themselves on the yellow level, the potential for self help is reduced or possibly not present at all. On step four, the parties tend to be emotionally involved in the conflict. As a manager, it might do you well to consider an intervention through a third party who is outside of the situation, such as someone from the HR department with professional training in conflict resolution.
From step five and up, the self-help potential is no longer active. At this stage it is a good idea to call in external professional help.
Steps 7-9: At this stage the conflict is getting out of control and none of the parties are able to see a solution for the situation.
The conflict takes the form of infighting. The original case has been forgotten and none of the parties are able to see a solution for the situation or the conflict. The conflict can easily escalate to the next step, where the parties are no longer able to be in the same room and there is no way back.
On the red level there is an even greater need for outside assistance in solving the conflict, so that it does not end up with someone giving notice or being dismissed. This can result in disruption that is felt throughout the organization.
The ABC of conflict management and how to use the model
To sum it up briefly, the method of approach described below can be useful when you, in the role of manager, use the conflict escalation model in a specific conflict situation. Note that the model is just as much a tool that you can have in the back of your mind when you respond to the needs, worries and interests of the employees. You can use it to prevent conflicts.
- A. The first step in conflict management is to determine whether there is a conflict in the first place. As a starting point, take the definition of conflict from above and let the parties consider whether it describes the reality they are experiencing. Do they agree to differ, or is there a conflict?
- B. The second step is about getting an overview of where the parties find themselves in the conflict situation. Show them the conflict staircase and ask where each of them finds themselves on the staircase. Inquire into the individual’s situation and ask about specific experiences. The parties often see themselves at different levels on the conflict staircase and might possibly shift when they become conscious of their own situation or that of the others. Be aware of the behavior and statements of the employees; a person who withholds important information is acting destructive (step 7), even when the person concerned perceives the situation as an argument (step 2).
- C. The third step has to do with considering what measures can be put to use in order to deescalate the conflict. Find out whether the parties find themselves mainly on steps 1-3 (green) or steps 4-9 (yellow/red). Use this to evaluate how you can best support them, by taking on the role of a coach and stepping in yourself, or by drawing on external professional mediators. Remember that seeking help from the outside does not make you a bad manager – on the contrary!
Mediation – a soft subject with hardcore tools
If you would like to learn more about conflict escalation, have access to some more hardcore tools, and gain essential skills in conflict management, I would recommend getting certified as a mediator. I got my certification at CrossingCultures. This professional training has made me a better manager and advisor. Ultimately, it has strengthened my business.
If you find yourself in a conflict situation and need professional conflict resolution, then contact Charlotte Bæk Risbjerg from RisbjergRelation. Charlotte has more than ten years of experience with mediation and offers it virtually too. I have witnessed her find solutions for parties in conflicts that seemed unsolvable until she entered the picture.
About the authors
Kristian Sørensen is CEO and Sr. Principal at IT ADVISORY.
Charlotte Bæk Risbjerg is professional mediator and owner of RisbjergRelation, where she trains organizations in developing teamwork and healthy conflict behavior. Further, she mediates conflicts in deadlock and helps get projects back on the right track. Drop her a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.