Workplace conflict is an issue many executives face. Conflict and its negative consequences impact not only individuals but the whole organization. This insights article focuses on what research informs us about how to coach conflict reduction strategies inside a company. This article is informed by Hughes, S. (2019) 'How could a 3-step coaching model help executives handle workplace conflict?', International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring, (S13), pp.16-31. DOI: 10.24384/jzdx-j617
There is an expression, “we can’t see the forest for the trees.” This happens when clients are so immersed in the situation that they cannot easily discriminate between multiple issues that seem to engulf them. In a business setting, this is when an executive and their teams are so close to the issues, there appears to be no prioritization of which issue to hack first, and they may be hacking at the symptoms of secondary issues, rather than hacking at the roots of the key issues.
On background, in 1997, Jehn identified three categories of workplace conflict:
Task conflict (what should be done),
Process conflict (how to do it), and
Relationship conflict (personality clash).
Jehn showed that high-performing groups experience little or no relationship conflict at all.
Workplace conflict has a negative impact on productivity and well-being, and it comes up often during coaching sessions. However, literature is still mostly theoretical when it comes to this issue and doesn't offer much practical guidance.
Tackling the lack of practical guidance of workplace conflict, in 2019, Sarah Hughes offered a three-step model for coaches to use with executives who face workplace conflict.
After reviewing the literature, Hughes suggests that, in order to manage conflict successfully, executives need to develop:
Self-awareness, including an appreciation that their perspective is subjective.
Other-awareness, which includes empathy and an appreciation of other perspectives.
Communication skills to enable approaching others for discussion.
Using McNiff’s and Whitehead’s (2011) Living Theory action research model, Hughes worked with three participants whose feedback shaped all three steps of the model.
Hughes devoted one coaching session to developing each of the three areas needed to manage the conflict successfully. She evaluated each coaching session three times, once with each participant, tweaking it after each cycle.
Source: Hughes, S. (2019)
Source: Hughes, S. (2019)
Hughes analyzed all data sources—interview transcriptions and audio recordings, participants’ questionnaire responses, her field notes, and reflective diary—and drew conclusions for each session.
The coaching session one, which was on self-awareness, helped the executives get valuable insights about themselves and enabled them to notice their own role in the conflict. The important realization they had is that they helped produce the conflict.
Hughes used several different approaches to develop self-awareness and concluded that the eclectic approach gives coaches the flexibility to find the best fit for the individual (Bachkirova et al., 2010). The participants applied the model both to personal and professional situations. They have also applied it to task and process conflicts, not only to relationship conflicts as it was first planned. That suggests that the 3-step coaching model can be applied more widely than first thought.
To develop other-awareness, it is vital to develop empathy and awareness of other perspectives. Hughes used Transactional Analysis in coaching to offer insights into relationship dynamics.
Two study participants realized they related to their bosses as a Child to a Parent. As Hughes explains, one of the participants discovered they were agreeing to all of their boss’s suggestions for fear of displeasing him. That resulted in a lack of boundaries such as work-life balance, consequently impacting their health and family. Creating awareness led this participant to start delegating more to others and to adopt an Adult-to-Adult approach with their boss.
All participants reported increased other-awareness and self-awareness after session two. That supports the theory that the two are linked, as Goleman et al. (2013) suggested.
Conflict Communication Skills
The participants suggested they might know their conflict-handling skills had improved if they were able to have a constructive conversation with their fellow disputant by the end of the coaching sessions.
Therefore, Hughes developed the SAYS approach to conflict communication based on participants’ feedback and understanding of their needs, combined with her experience of helping previous clients. She used it in Session 3 to start a discussion about how to approach the other disputant.
Source: Hughes, S. (2019)
All participants found this practical guidance valuable. The SAYS approach’s preparation stage helped the participants realize what they want from their working relationship. It also required and further developed their self-awareness and other-awareness.
The SAYS approach helped participants find a way to rephrase a negative thought using positive language, such as "we'd really like to discuss this," rather than, “this relationship’s not working, you’re not doing this,” as one of the participants suggested.
Using this approach also facilitated planning how to challenge the Parent-Child relationship with their boss and change it into an Adult-Adult relationship, which was particularly problematic for one of the participants.
Using thematic analysis of interview transcriptions and participants’ questionnaire responses, Hughes got some other valuable insights.
Emotions in Conflict
It was shown that coaching raised the executives' awareness of how their emotions drove conflict and helped them manage their emotional reactions. The approach to managing emotions depended on the participant. For one of the participants, it meant pausing before reacting, which interrupted the fight/flight response and helped them manage the emotions. It also helped to forgive and let go, which enables the individual to talk constructively.
However, not all participants were aware of their emotions before discussing them. This, as Hughes mentions, reinforces the importance of raising disputants' emotional awareness and helping them reappraise their interpretation to encourage resolution, as suggested by Schlaerth et al. (2013).
Conflict and Self-Esteem
Another important finding was that conflict coaching boosted executives’ self-esteem.
During coaching, one of the executives noticed their low evaluation of their own worth compared to their seniority and longevity at the company. Coaching helped the participant develop a more balanced perspective of their value compared to their employer. That helped in setting boundaries around work, which consequently allowed the executive more family time.
However, it is hard to generalize from this small study, so this finding would need more research to prove it.
Coaching helped raise the executives' awareness that avoiding conflict is an issue. Avoidance might prolong the conflict. Collaboration is crucial to solve the conflict and build relationships.
While Hughes' work is based on a small study, and the generalization of its results is limited, there remains value for executive coaches in coaching workplace conflict reduction in their coaching sessions.
Here are some actionable insights from the research:
Consider using a 3-step model like the one described above that was shown to help develop self-awareness, other-awareness, and conflict communication skills, helping executives manage the conflict more successfully.
Remember Jehn’s early finding—high-performing groups experience little or no relationship conflict at all.
Hughes provided an actionable three-step strategy to help coaches teach executives to manage conflict successfully, which positively impacts individuals’ well-being and can lead to a higher-performing organization.
Bachkirova, T., Cox, E. and Clutterbuck, D. (2010) 'Introduction', in Cox, E., Bachkirova, T. and Clutterbuck, D. (eds.) The Complete Handbook of Coaching. London: Sage, pp.1-20.
Goleman, D., Boyatzis, R. and McKee, A. (2013) Primal Leadership: Learning to Lead with Emotional Intelligence. Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing.
Hughes, S. (2019) 'How could a 3-step coaching model help executives handle workplace conflict?', International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring, (S13), pp.16-31. DOI: 10.24384/jzdx-j617
Jehn, K. (1997) 'A Qualitative Analysis of Conflict Types and Dimensions in Organizational Groups', Administrative Science Quarterly, 42(3), pp.530-557. DOI: 10.2307/2393737.
McNiff, J. and Whitehead, J. (2011) All You Need to Know About Action Research (2nd edn.). London: Sage.
Schlaerth, A., Ensari, N. and Christian, J. (2013) 'A meta-analytical review of the relationship between emotional intelligence and leaders’ constructive conflict management', Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 16(1), pp.126-136. DOI: 10.1177/1368430212439907.
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