Conflict Management Skills: The New Strategic Advantage

An active conflict is a crossroads. Skillfully managed, an active conflict can propel an organization down a path of new opportunities, awareness, and ideas. Handled badly, a dispute can quickly cause distraction, raise stress levels, and create barriers to good things like productivity, communications, and creativity.

Much has been written on the great benefits of dispute resolution, and of the potentially transformative power of high-quality interventions brought in to play when circumstances have already become contentious and disruptive. As an antidote to the destructive problems of organizational conflict gone wrong, responsive mediation, coaching and similar supportive efforts are proven methods of returning a working team to a successful path. The value of getting back to work, having harnessed the catalytic energy of opposing ideas, can’t be overstated.

...skilled conflict management in an organization leads to higher employee engagement and enthusiasm, and these qualities are directly related to profitability and productivity.
— Diane Duvall

But what is the value of taking a more proactive approach to dispute resolution? Is there a way to quantify the return on an organization’s investment in training and support for the purpose of developing conflict competency skills and systems before a dispute arises?

The collective capabilities of an organization can be seen as among the most reliable indicators of strategic advantage. As one method of protecting and enhancing those collective capabilities, conflict management training provides the direct advantage of reducing the likelihood of badly handled conflict. But there is another set of benefits to doing this work. Though rarely discussed in terms of the return on the training investment, the organizational advantages of conflict management training are significant.

To begin with, it’s a good idea to note that there is more than one way to train a team in conflict management skills. The skill set I’m referring to here relies on supporting and encouraging pro-social behavior as a core element of the skills-building process. Broadly defined, pro-social behavior encompasses qualities such as fairness, cooperation, camaraderie and compassion, which are associated with higher levels of intrinsic motivation in the workplace, as well as better job performance and satisfaction. [1] (Sources: Monica C. Worline and Jane E. DuttonTabibnia G & Leiberman M )

Diane Chart 3.jpg

In fact, research shows that one of the most valuable tools a working team can possess is the ability to respond to disagreements in a pro-social manner. When the leadership and core values of an organization provide a supportive atmosphere for team members to meet disputes and disagreements with pro-social responses, it improves productivity and financial performance, boosts profitability and effectiveness, and increases customer and employee retention over time. [2] (Source: Kim S. Cameron, David Bright, and Arran Caza)

Turning to another key element of organizational success, the ability to innovate is substantially enhanced in organizations where conflict is skillfully addressed and taken in stride by the team. When the entire working group understands that disagreements can be a rich source of new ideas, and when the shared understanding is that mistakes are learning opportunities, it creates a sense of psychological safety, which increases the ability to learn new things, and sets the stage for open-minded sharing of new ideas. [3] (Source: Amy Edmondson)

An atmosphere of respect, trust, and strong human connections also creates the necessary foundation for rapid coordination among team members. The demonstrated benefits of relational coordination within a working team include better financial performance, and higher efficiency, quality, and safety. [4] (Sources: Jody Hoffer GittellJody Hoffer Gittell and Caroline K. Logan)

Along the same lines, customer interactions are improved when an organization demonstrates a commitment to encouraging pro-social responses to disputes within the working group. And the benefit extends both ways: employees experience measurably higher job satisfaction and protection against burnout when they have the support and training to use pro-social skills with clients. [5] (Source: Jacoba M. Lilius) 

Proactive, pro social conflict management skills also enhance an organization’s ability to keep their employees. If doing great work requires great people, then it is a key strategic advantage to be able to find and and hang on to the best people for the job. When employees experience the benefit of good conflict management, such as compassionate responses to personal difficulties, and attention to building awareness and solving problems instead of responding with judgment or blame, they demonstrate a greater commitment to their organization. [6] (Source: Lilius, J., Worline, M., Maitlis, S., Kanov, J., Dutton, J., & Frost, P)

Similarly, skilled conflict management in an organization leads to higher employee engagement and enthusiasm, and these qualities are directly related to profitability and productivity. [7] (Source: Harter, J., Schmidt, F., Hayes, T.)  For example, one study shows a correlation between greater employee engagement and far higher Earnings Per Share (nearly 150% higher than competitors).  [8] (Source: Gallup) By extension, engaged employees tend to create engaged customers, and engaged customers spend more money – especially with their preferred brands. [9] (Source: Gallup)

In Conclusion: Training teams to use high-quality conflict management skills can improve outcomes across multiple indicators of organizational success. By developing the agility to move beyond avoidance and discord and toward continuing and improved engagement, working teams can establish new avenues of creativity and productivity that can only be sustained where conflict is understood as an inevitable element of teamwork, with an inherent and usually untapped generative power. Considering what we know about the profound benefits of high engagement and pro-social behavior in the workplace, this type of training holds the promise of a substantial, quantifiable return on every dollar allocated and every hour spent on the process.

End Notes:

[1] Monica C. Worline and Jane E. Dutton, Awakening Compassion at Work, 2017 Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc.;

Tabibnia G & Leiberman M; (2007). Fairness and cooperation are rewarding. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1118, 90-101, 98.

[2] Kim S. Cameron, David Bright, and Arran Caza, “Exploring the Relationship between Organizational Virtuousness and Performance,” American Behavioral Scientist 47, no. 6 (February 2004): 766-90

[3] Amy Edmondson, “Learning from Mistakes is Easier Said Than Done: Group and Organizational Influences on the Detection and Correction of Human Error,” Journal of Applied Behavioral Science 32, no. 1 (1996): 5-28

[4] Jody Hoffer Gittell, The Southwest Airlines Way (New York: McGraw Hill, 2003), 20; Jody Hoffer Gittell and Caroline K. Logan, “Developing Relational Coordination: What We Are Learning” (2014)

[5] Jacoba M. Lilius, “Recovery at Work: Understanding the Restorative Side of ‘Depleting’ Client Interactions,” Academy of Management Review 37, no. 4 (2012) p. 573, 575, 581 (as to caregiver relationships)

[6] Lilius, J., Worline, M., Maitlis, S., Kanov, J., Dutton, J., & Frost, P. (2008). The Contours and Consequences of Compassion at Work. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 29, 211.  (as to the pro-social skill of showing compassion)

[7] “Business units in the top quartile on employee engagement had, on average, from $80,000 to $120,000 higher monthly revenue or sales (and for one organization, the difference was more than $300,000). Assuming even an $80,000 difference per month per business unit, this difference translates into $960,000 per year per business unit.”  Harter, J., Schmidt, F., Hayes, T.,  Business-Unit-Level Relationship Between Employee Satisfaction, Employee Engagement, and Business Outcomes: A Meta-Analysis, Journal of Applied Psychology2002, Vol. 87, No. 2, 268–279

[8] see Gallup, State of the Global Workplace report: at p. 22

[9] see Gallup: