This Model Will Give You More Options for Handling Conflict!

Part I  

Every organization, no matter its size, faces conflict. But the presence of Millennials plus four other generations in our workforce—with their divergent styles, behaviors and needs—can increase and exacerbate conflict situations.

I am a firm believer that conflict doesn’t have to be negative. It can provide positive opportunities for teams and individuals to develop, innovate and build trust to reach higher performance levels.

For these positive benefits to emerge, however, requires leadership to pause, evaluate the conflict situation and its power dynamics, and then adapt situational behavior to achieve a desirable outcome.

I wanted to offer a power/conflict model, originating from Columbia University, that will help both experienced leaders and emerging Millennial leaders achieve these positive outcomes. Clymer Bardsley, a lawyer and mediator who advises organizations enmeshed in conflict situations, teaches the Conflict Intelligence Model—shown below—for handling conflict. It emphasizes harnessing soft and hard power dynamics.

Here are a few points to help understand and interpret the model:

1.   Power language—references whether individuals are coming from a High Power or Low Power position. Power comes from many sources, including job titles, experience, knowledge, persuasion skills and informal influence. In most organizational conflicts, there is a power differential whenever conflict arises, with one person usually having more power than the other. Since our conversation here centers around leaders’ actions, we are automatically dealing with “High Power” positions and, thus, will be referencing only the top two quadrants on the model.

2.   Pragmatic Benevolence Strategy—creates an awareness of shared goals, the importance of relationships and priorities, while modeling a constructive form of conflict management and organizational citizenship. When consciously chosen as a strategy, Benevolence can inspire followers to see conflict as a necessary and positive aspect of working together. Conflicts are not only resolvable but also can be leveraged to increase creativity and motivation.

3.   Constructive Dominance Strategy—increases the lower-power party’s awareness of the leader’s authority and control, of the high level of dependence on the leader and her/his priorities, while decreasing the lower-party’s sense of their own power and independence. When consciously chosen as a strategy, Constructive Dominance offers options for dealing with subordinates who refuse to cooperate with organizational goals, or with others, or who ignore the greater good for their own individual ends.

To illustrate how this model can dramatically work for you, I’m going to outline two situations that I consistently encounter in my client systems. Part I, discussed here, involves a Baby Boomer leader with a Millennial direct report who is resisting directives.

In Part II, I’ll discuss the second situation, involving a newly hired Millennial leader tasked with leading a multigenerational team whose members are older and more experienced.

The Situation—Brian, a law firm partner, is in a conflict situation with Emily, a young associate who thinks there are better ways to complete assigned research, is resistant and not completing work on time.

Brian might instinctively resort to a default setting of “dominance” which emphasizes the organizational hierarchy and importance of authority. If not done constructively, it could involve threats of job loss or even personal attacks and sarcastic jibes.

It can also be very costly financially. According to The Predictive Index, replacing an executive or higher-level employee costs roughly 200-250% of that person’s salary. For an associate earning $120,000, at the lower 200% replacement estimate, it will cost the firm approximately $240,000 in lost revenue to replace the departing associate—whether through a termination or resignation.

Therefore, Bardsley suggests that instead of instinctively moving to the dominance methods, Brian should pause and reflect on three questions related to these relationships, including the one with the associate:

1.   How important is Emily to me? Do I need her to achieve my, and the organization’s, goals in the future? Do I want to stay in this relationship going forward? Can I walk away from the situation without consequences?

2.   Is Emily with me or against me (or both)? Is she on my side? Are my goals and concerns shared? Is Emily trustworthy?

3.   Am I more or less powerful (or equal)? Who is in charge here? How about the long run—who is really in control?

If the answer to all three questions is yes, then Bardsley recommends Brian try the Pragmatic Benevolent Strategy. When meeting, even though they disagree, Brian, who automatically has more power, can:

1.   Cultivate a positive, respectful relationship—this sets a cultural example of how the associate is also to treat others in the firm. Brian needs to step back, be open to the situation and not allow any biased Millennial stereotypes to creep in.

2.   Be willing to hear the associate’s ideas. Even though Brian might have heard the same ideas 2, 5 or 10 years ago, he shouldn’t say, “We tried that, and it didn’t work.” Be open to the possibility that this time there might be a new twist that could make the idea work. At the same time, Brian brings in other factors that Emily might not be aware of—dollar consequences, a judge’s inclinations, etc. Brian imparts wisdom from experience in a constructive way and both he and Emily learn from each other.

Emily—and all Millennials—wants to be heard. They know that not all their ideas will be implemented but having the ideas heard goes a long way in maintaining a respectful relationship and encouraging Millennials to give the most of their discretionary efforts.

3.   Appeal to the younger person’s career goals—Brian may not endorse Emily’s idea this time, but says, “Keep your ideas coming. I value you, want to keep hearing from you, and see you succeed in this firm.”

Sometimes, Pragmatic Benevolence won’t work. The young associate might not respond to the tactics. Then the move toward Constructive Dominance is exactly what Bardsley advises, so long as it is, in fact, constructive.

Leaders in every generation will always face the potential for conflict in today’s highly stressed, disruptive, multigenerational workplace. However, leadership’s job remains the same: to respect team members, connect them with the company’s mission, and give frequent feedback for course corrections in our fast-paced work world.

Using this situational model can help leaders build and maintain the type of respectful culture that will strengthen trust and enable high performing teams to accomplish their best work.

In Part II of this series, we’ll look at a situation in which a Millennial has been brought in to lead a multigenerational team in which all members have more experience than the team lead and are resentful of the new leader. We’ll apply the model and offer creative strategies for resolution.