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Get a Grip on Workplace Conflict

Conflict is never fun to deal with, but if it is handled immediately and with a clear goal in mind, conflict can provide a growth opportunity for those involved—and even for the organization at large.

By Samantha Whitehorne

As uncomfortable as conflict is, it will likely rear its head at multiple points during your association career, particularly if you are a supervisor or have another type of leadership role.

Pegotty Cooper, FASAE, a certified leadership and career strategy coach at Career Strategy Roadmap, says three types of conflict are common in the association world:

  • Between a boss and his or her direct report. “Usually it’s because one feels that the other has withheld information or has failed to meet expectations,” Cooper says.
  • Between staff and committee or chapter leaders. In these conflicts, one party may feel unappreciated or believe that the other is not contributing as they should.
  • Between a board member and the CEO. “They may have differing understandings of each other’s roles, or they may be trying to assert their role as leader,” Cooper says.

Conflict related to a power struggle is different from conflict that arises when someone doesn’t tell the truth or fails to meet expectations, but the behaviors that come along with both are similar. “You may notice some destructive or passive behaviors accompany conflict,” including arguing, bursts of anger, and ignoring others, Cooper says.

Forewarned is forearmed. Personal awareness can help people choose a more productive response when inevitable conflicts arise. 

—Pegotty Cooper

A supervisor attempting to deal with an employee who’s exhibiting these behaviors must accept and recognize that it’s happening. “While it’s easy to ignore and tell yourself it will get resolved, it likely won’t,” she says. “You need to acknowledge what’s going on and understand that you have to handle the situation immediately.”

Next, Cooper says, a supervisor should slow down the situation. “Talk to those involved separately, not to solve the problem but to have them express the situation as they see it. Supervisors should also describe the conflict as they see it,” she says. “If the two employees are stuck, offer to bring them together to look at different ways of moving forward. Often this can be enough.”

Supervisors can also prevent conflict before it happens by having teams take an assessment to help each person recognize his or her own hot buttons and responses that are both constructive and destructive.

“Forewarned is forearmed,” Cooper says. “This personal awareness can help people choose a more productive response when those inevitable conflicts arise.”

And although conflict can be difficult to deal with and uncomfortable to address, it also can be healthy and beneficial, especially when innovation, creativity, and new ideas or approaches emerge.

“Conflict also provides an opportunity for growth,” Cooper says. “The ability to respond effectively to challenging situations is often the growing edge for leaders in organizations. And creating a conflict-competent organization can uncover many riches that get hidden and locked away when conflict is perceived to be a negative force.”

Samantha Whitehorne is deputy editor of Associations Now. Email: [email protected]

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