Handling Conflict—with Care

Emotional Intelligence expert Dan Goleman explains how skillful leaders can recognize workplace conflicts and help others get past them.

Emotional intelligence remains a key ingredient in the development of corporate leaders. In this series, best-selling author and Korn Ferry columnist Daniel Goleman reveals the 12 key skills behind EI. This is an edited excerpt from his introduction to Conflict Management: A Primer.

The Conflict Management competency involves having the ability to help others through emotional or tense situations, tactfully bringing disagreements into the open, and defining solutions that everyone can endorse. Leaders who take time to understand different perspectives work toward finding a common ground on which everyone can agree. They acknowledge the views of all sides, while redirecting the energy toward a shared ideal or an agreeable resolution.

When I think of a situation where the Conflict Management competency was missing, the story of two telecoms in a European city comes to mind.

The companies had a working alliance to build a new product together with a team from each company assigned to the project. Even though they were in the same city, the two teams never met in person. They just emailed each other. And the email traffic degenerated so that they ended up having flame wars where they were just sending angry, accusatory messages to each other. The product wasn’t getting done. Clearly, they needed someone to skillfully manage the conflict that had developed.

Research highlights the value of effective conflict management, showing that teams that use a cooperative approach to conflict have better business results. Southwest Airlines promotes managers who demonstrate an ability to bring conflicts to the surface and to resolve them.

Harvard researchers found three common symptoms of so-called “hot conflicts.” Team members persist in arguing the same points. They make personal accusations, and when emotion flares, their progress halts. Likewise, further research shows that high performing teams surface simmering disagreements and deal with them rather than suppressing or ignoring them.

The situation faced by the teams from the two European telecoms is far from unique. Conflicts happen all the time in work settings, within teams, and between different parts of the same organization. Conflict may start out as a simple difference of opinion or perspective, but without skillful handling, it can expand into a work-stopping problem such as the telecoms experienced. Skillful leaders must be able to navigate the waters of conflict, recognize it, handle their own emotions about it, and help others move through the conflict.

Two additional emotional intelligence competencies come into play when a leader steps in to manage conflict. Emotional Self-Control helps keep the leader’s own reactions under wraps so he or she can focus on those involved. And Empathy allows tuning into the perspectives and feelings of those on either side of a rift in order to work toward a solution both can accept.