Making conflict work
29th September 2022 | Claudia Filsinger and Helma Betts
While conflict needs to be managed well, it can also be productive.
Conflict is a frequent challenge among business relationships with customers, partners and suppliers. Inside organisations, conflicts within teams and cross-functionally are also common, yet sales professionals often feel ill-equipped to manage conflict well. Unresolved conflict can spread and grow, and result in stress and well-being issues for those involved. In this article, we explore the nature of conflict, its root causes and impact on stakeholders. Here, we recommend best practices for managing conflict well and will also show its inherent benefits.
What is conflict?
We talk about conflict occurring at work when individuals, departments or customers start to pursue goals that are not aligned with the overall benefit of the team or organisation. Disagreement over what and how things should be done disrupts workflows and oftentimes results in behaviour that intends to stop others from reaching their goals. Reasons for why conflict might arise are usually rooted in personal preferences such as self-actualisation or personality clashes, but also in resource or power scarcity, and lack of (or mis-)communication.
Whenever we are faced with conflict we have a choice on how to deal with it. Avoidance is one of these options but it comes at a cost. Unresolved conflict allowed to build and fester can lead to a myriad of problems in teams and customer and wider stakeholder relationships. Among the most harmful ones seen internally is higher staff turnover, lack of communication and passive-aggressiveness. Because conflict is distracting and often requires much energy it narrows the mind’s focus and directly impacts creativity and overall job performance.
Because conflict is distracting and often requires much energy it narrows the mind’s focus and directly impacts creativity and overall job performance.
Sitting with unresolved conflict can build up numerous physical and psychological responses in those affected by it. Often signs of stress begin to show immediately, such as shallow breathing, physical tension and sleeping issues. These are important signals that our body sends us that we are feeling attacked. In the short term, some of these responses can be helpful to make us more focused on a task or problem at hand.
However, if we cannot solve the issue or if there are new attacks, these signals can grow into uncomfortable and more permanent health issues and the knock-on effects from this, such as heart problems or strokes (Mental Health Foundation, 2018). It is therefore important that we heed the early warning signs and pay attention to body tensions. Many organisations offer support through employee assistance programmes with medical and counselling services.
Balancing internal and external conflict
In sales, externally driven conflict usually has priority, and formal escalation processes are in place. However, organisations should also support their leaders with escalating and de-escalating strategies for internal conflicts. Unresolved internal conflict can be a blindspot for sales organisations and impact negatively on external relationships: for instance, if it leads to frequently changing account managers. Or past conflicts around delivery issues that were not well communicated can lead to, for example, the customer questioning capability to meet deadlines for new projects and create brand and reputation damage. Long-term, unresolved conflict can become embedded in an organisation’s DNA. These can include lingering relationship or task conflicts, and hidden loyalties can cause conflict when old loyalty patterns are no longer of service, for example after mergers and acquisitions.
Apart from the potential health implications discussed, conflict depletes resources that could otherwise be used for on-task sales activities such as processing, exchanging, interpreting, and implementing customer information (Auh et al., 2014). Hence balancing and managing internal and external conflict well will ultimately serve customer relationships and business outcomes.
Developing conflict capabilities
Leaders spend some 15-40% of their time managing conflict. However, a study found that managers and employers are overconfident about their conflict-management abilities (CIPD, 2020). This contrasts with employees’ own experiences, who often feel their conflict is not taken seriously or made worse by managers. Managers themselves naturally can also be the source of conflict! The attitude to conflict can be influenced by personality: for some it is part of doing business; for others it is uncomfortable and something they (often unknowingly) avoid.
A study on coaching for workplace conflict found three critical enablers for conflict management: self-awareness, other-awareness, and conflict communication skills (Hughes, 2019). This is where sales leaders can support their team members by developing these through:
- Role modelling
- Specific conflict management development actions
- Feedback to raise self-awareness and make progress visible
A particularly critical role here is played by sales leaders coaching their teams.
Conflict in teams
Conflicts offer the opportunity to reinvent processes, to air problems and find solutions, and are often the catalyst for sizeable systemic change. All this is only possible if we become curious and have a genuine interest in finding the root cause. For example, a team that is particularly troubled by conflict could be helped by revisiting the early stages of when they first formed or reformed. A resolution can be attempted through guided conversation by the manager, coach or mediator to find out when and how the conflict erupted:
- What needs to happen to fix the issue now?
- How do we repair communication issues and earn each other’s trust?
- How can issues like this be avoided in the future?
Throughout the conversation great care needs to be taken to ensure that everyone is heard in equal measure and that assurances are given that no negative repercussions need to be feared.
There is a golden hour for intervention, usually in the early stages of team formation. If the conflict has established itself over a prolonged period, it will take much more effort to regain trust and, thus, performance. Ideally, at this point an experienced coach or mediator should be involved.
Expanding conflict management capabilities has become even more important since the increase in hybrid working.
This best practice of early intervention applies also to customer and other stakeholder relationships. For example, if deals are lost at later stages in the sales cycle due to hidden conflict, considerable resources will have already been invested. As conflict pervades every corner of the sales environment, sales managers need to have early-detection mechanisms in place (Auh et al, 2014). Early conflict in relationships is an opportunity for bonding, as differences are made transparent and norms for working together are established. Customer trust that future conflicts will be managed well can be earned through this.
Expanding conflict management capabilities has become even more important since the increase in hybrid working. There is less opportunity for informal time spent with customers and teams, so sales professionals need to build relationships more proactively. Regular evaluation of collaborations can be an early “detection mechanism” of potential conflicts. An interesting concept here is “perceived virtuality” compared to “actual virtual time” (Handke et al. 2020). This has been studied in virtual teams, but the concept can also be applied to external relationships: how can they be developed to be perceived as less virtual?
In virtual teams, conflict tends to increase in line with the level of virtuality, with trust playing a major role in both preventing and managing conflict (Caputo et al., 2022; Gilson et al., 2015). Therefore, conflict management and creating trust through psychological safety is a core capability of the hybrid team leader. Virtual meetings are more conducive to inclusive conversations as it is harder to speak over each other. Arrival and check-out rituals that promote equal airtime such as “turns” (each person speaks for a short time uninterrupted) can foster the conflict maturity of a team or group.
The productive side of conflict
We have already highlighted some of the inherent opportunities in conflict; however, there are other productive aspects of conflict, including:
- Accelerating team maturity and creating psychological safety by developing norms through a healthy debating culture and candid dialogues.
- Increased divergent thinking that benefits innovation by hearing all voices. Paddy Dhanda, agile expert and host of the Superpowers School Podcast – Human Skills for The Future says: “Healthy conflict in innovation is like removing the stabilisers from a bicycle. It unlocks new possibilities to elevate teams to heights they never thought could be possible.”
- Improved risk management. “Before we come to a way forward, we must get different positions on the table and let different voices make a case for them. Crystallising conflicts or differences can be seen as an important step of risk management, to make sure we do not have hidden blind spots.” says Yong Shen, international c-suite business leader, coach and mentor.
In summary, we discussed best practices on managing conflict, and how conflict can have inherent benefits for relationship building, innovation, inclusion and risk management. To minimise negative impact, early intervention and careful management is critical. Hence, sales organisations need to invest in conflict management and leader-as-coach capabilities. This could reduce the need for formal conflict management procedures such as mediation. HR professionals are frequently trained in mediation and coaching, and can offer support or, if required as a last resort, advise how to initiate a formal mediation process.
Auh, S, Spyropoulou, S, Menguc, B, Uslu, A (2013), “When and how does sales team conflict affect sales team performance?” Journal of Academic Marketing Science, 42:658–679.
Caputo, A., Kargina, M. and Pellegrini, M. M. (2022), “Conflict in Virtual Teams: A Bibliometric Analysis, Systematic Review, and Research Agenda,” International Journal of Conflict Management, (20220606).
CIPD (2020), Managing Conflict in the modern workplace.
Gilson L L et al (2015), “Virtual Teams Research: 10 Years, 10 Themes, and 10 Opportunities,” Journal of Management, 41(5), pp 1313–1337.
Handke, L, Costa, P, Klonek, F, O’Neill, T, Parker, S (2020), “Team perceived virtuality: an emergent state perspective,” European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 1-15.
Hughes, S (2019), “How could a 3-step coaching model help executives handle workplace conflict,” International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring, 2019, S13, pp 16-31.
Mental Health Foundation Survey, (2018),