Senior Client Partner, Global Co-Leader CEO & Enterprise Leadership Development
Who Needs Conflict-Management Training? You Do.
It’s unavoidable: As more people return to the office, more face-to-face conflicts emerge. Are companies training managers how to respond?
Apparently not—or not enough. A new survey of 600 US business leaders shows that nearly 6 out of 10 say that their weakest skills are in conflict management—and that it’s costly to their companies. “Lots of failures at organizations can be traced back to poorly handled conflict,” says Jamen Graves, global co-leader of the CEO and Enterprise Leadership Development practice at Korn Ferry. Even unimportant conflicts can leave employees feeling disengaged and misunderstood, experts say, and some of them will end up leaving the company.
Five years ago, as the purpose movement took off, companies were focusing on better environments and on making offices calmer and psychologically safer. Then the pandemic sent everyone home, and experts say much of that progress appears to have dissipated. HR departments are now bracing for a spike in conflicts as more workers return to the office. HR expert Ron Porter, senior client partner at Korn Ferry, says, “More conflicts are inevitable”—especially among colleagues who have never before worked together in the same physical space, and in office cultures that may no longer have clear norms on how to handle those conflicts.
Allowing managers to put off difficult conversations, or to delegate them to subordinates or the HR department, exacerbates the problem. It can lead to leaders who are deeply uncomfortable providing negative feedback on performance reviews or asking for improvements in behavior—let alone doing so both stringently and tactfully. “I see this over and over again,” says C-suite advisor Anu Gupta, senior client partner at Korn Ferry. “They’re worried about saying one wrong word, or hitting the wrong tone.”
But experts say the biggest issue is training—or lack of it. In the US, firms currently spend over $100 billion a year to train their executives—but not, in most cases, in conflict management. Training programs often do touch on the topic, but only indirectly. The result is that conflicts fester. “Issues that could’ve been solved with the initial supervisor often spiral up to the next level, because they weren’t addressed effectively,” says Porter.
To be sure, human resources departments often step in to carry the load, says Dan Kaplan, senior client partner in the CHRO practice at Korn Ferry. HR executives have extensive experience in handling difficult conversations and firings; depending on them to continue filling that need for courageous conversations, trainings, and other de-escalation efforts is a reasonable strategy. “What can HR do more, and differently, to make up for the fact that conflict management doesn’t exist anywhere else?” asks Kaplan.
Experts recommend the use of dedicated conflict-management trainings, ideally in cohorts where coworkers can practice and learn which strategies to use depending on the parties, the context, the power dynamic, and the leader’s own relationship with conflict. “It’s not one-size-fits-all,” says Graves.
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