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  • CONFLICT - RESOLVE OR PREVENT IT?

    In any conflict, whether it be a simple dispute between two parties or a major confrontation between nation states, the ideal outcome is a win - win solution.

    Much time and effort has been spent in examining the issue of conflict within our community. Alistair Mant, in his book Intelligent Leadership, describes two mindsets, ‘binary’ and ‘ternary’ as being the basic modes of operation in organisational relationships. The fundamental assumption of the binary mode is that of Darwinian survival “if I win you lose; or if we scratch each other’s backs, we can screw the rest - as in on-off binary notation.” (Mant 1997pp5/6). In the ternary mode the idea of the relationship is governed by its purpose or object. The outcomes in relation to the whole are the primary focus and are more important than the particular interests of the stakeholders.

    One result of this focus on conflict and survival rather than outcomes in relation to the whole is waste of both time and an immense amount of valuable resources. And often the final outcomes are much less than the optimum for the parties involved and consequently lead to further conflict. Undoubtedly all sides have contributed to the situation that now exists, and any solutions will require paradigm shifts in present attitudes and systems. Such changes will be difficult to achieve.

    Most would agree that conflict is intrinsic in human relationships. Some argue that it is essential for creativity and therefore for human progress. The key issue is whether conflict is good or bad in its effect. Very often it can prove to be beneficial, but conversely, it can also result in very undesirable outcomes. It is not difficult to recall many instances where we have felt the effects, both good and bad, of conflict in our own experiences and relationships, or observed the effects on others.

    In public health, preventative measures are the first steps that should be taken to minimise disease and illness. The next step is of course to treat the disease or illness. Both steps are essential.

    So it is with conflict. If it is accepted that conflict is intrinsic and cannot be avoided, surely the first step is to maximise its beneficial effects and minimise any adverse effects that might stem from it. The second and still very necessary step should be to resolve conflicts once they get to the stage where such action is needed.

    It is our conviction that most of the unnecessary and destructive conflict that occurs results from poor interpersonal communication and inadequate leadership, teamwork, and problem solving skills. It seems to be easier to let things get out of hand than to take thoughtful and caring measures to minimise conflict in the first place.

    There has been a great deal of comment made and a limited number of initiatives taken recently to identify and overcome these problems. So how do we stand at present? What is being done to prepare people to deal with the conflict that they will inevitably face? In general terms, the answer appears to be very little, and at present \'people skills\' education and training are low in priority and poorly resourced.

    Beginning with our future - the youth of Australia - anecdotal evidence suggests that most Australian educational institutions do not prepare students well for life after graduation, at least in the areas of leadership, teamwork, problem solving, decision making and interpersonal communication skills. Indeed, many tertiary and some secondary institutions do not accept responsibility for the provision of such skills. Many others that accept the responsibility do so in a very limited way, and their efforts to provide the skills are frequently poorly coordinated or misdirected. In some cases lip service only is paid to satisfying the need.

    In the private and public sectors of the business community, managers are predominantly concerned with staying in business and improving the goods or services their organisations provide. In these tight economic times businesses are cutting costs to the bone and are making do with less. Often this has meant reductions in the workforce with managers turning increasingly to improved people performance as a significant means of improving productivity. Frequently this results in fewer people working longer hours under greater pressure than ever before. In these circumstances the need for effective leadership and teamwork at all levels becomes increasingly important. Consequently, there is a growing need to improve not only technical skills but also the \'people skills\' of staff at all levels. Some efforts have been made by some organisations to develop these skills in their staff, but we believe much more effort is required to meet this vital need.

    At The Leadership Academy we believe that it is better to be proactive than reactive in developing management skills. We therefore focus on teaching the key \'people skills\' of leadership, teambuilding, problem solving, decision making, and interpersonal communication.

    We hope that through judicious analysis and effective training and management development we can be part of the preventative measures we believe are essential to maximise the constructive aspects of conflict and minimise the adverse effects before they escalate to the stage where resolution becomes difficult.

    Peter McDougall
    February 2002