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As Benjamin Franklin once said, "When will mankind be convinced and agree to settle their difficulties by arbitration?" In the C-suite, conflict resolution remains a priority. It necessitates a delicate dance of diplomacy and leadership, rooted in a firm understanding of people and processes.

It's imperative to acknowledge that conflict isn't an anomaly but an inherent part of any organizational structure. According to the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), in an analysis of Fortune 500 companies, 85% of employees report experiencing conflict to some degree. This is unsurprising considering the diversity in goals and objectives across departments, hierarchies and, individual contributors.

The Cognitive and Affective Dimensions of Conflict

McKinsey's research highlights two central aspects of conflict – cognitive and affective. The cognitive dimension identifies conflict rooted in disagreements on tasks or ideas for strategic planning or digital transformation. The affective side relates to interpersonal discord or emotional conflict. While a moderate level of cognitive conflict can promote innovation, high levels of affective conflict are seldom beneficial. Failure to distinguish or manage these conflicts can impair performance management and overall operational excellence.

A Shift in Paradigm: From Resolution to Management

The historical focus on conflict resolution has evolved into conflict management. Goldman Sachs' 2020 leadership report stated this shift is due to the recurring and persistent nature of conflicts - a move influenced by the work at MIT Sloan Management. Although eliminating conflict might be impractical, executives can strategize to minimize its negative impacts and maximize the potential benefits.

The Five Conflict Management Strategies

The renowned Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument identifies five strategies for managing conflict.

Conflict Management Leadership Styles

PwC's global CEO survey reveals varying styles of leadership addressing conflict management. 'The Resoluter,' driven to solve any conflict that arises, is closely followed by 'The Step-Backer,' who allows the involved parties to sort out their conflict directly. 'The Analyst,' is a leader that gathers all possible information before decisions, while 'The Emoter' relies on gut feelings.

Incorporating Adaptive Leadership for Conflict Management

Deloitte enlists 'Adaptive Leadership' as a crucial skill for C-level executives. It's an approach to handling change that involves influencing others to tackle and succeed in challenging work. Adaptive leaders foster a culture of open communication, transparent decision-making, and embracing disagreements. This shifts the narrative from avoiding conflict to leveraging it to spur discourse and foster innovation.

Investing in Conflict Competence

EY's 2021 Megatrends report places significant emphasis on 'Conflict Competence.' This requires investment in training and resources to improve the organization's overall ability to understand and manage conflict effectively. With numerous firms like Accenture, Bain, and Forrester highlighting the need for diversity in the workplace, a greater demand for conflict competence within management is expected.

The Role of Emotional Intelligence (EQ)

A Gartner study indicates that C-level executives with high EQ are better at managing conflict. They possess the ability to recognize and control their emotions and understand the emotions of others - critical tools in navigating affective conflicts. Leveraging EQ can also contribute to fostering a positive organizational culture.

To close this discussion, conflict in the workplace is inevitable, but adept management can transform it into an engine that drives organizational growth and innovation. The key principles include understanding the types of conflict, utilizing the right management strategy, embracing adaptive leadership, investing in conflict competence, and employing emotional intelligence.


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