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Turning Conflict into a Creative Force

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By Dr. Tomi Wahlström |

Conflict in the workplace is a fact of life, and the world of sports is not immune to its effects.

It is normal and unavoidable for people with different goals and needs to occasionally disagree and find themselves in a conflict. This is not necessarily a bad thing and as long as conflict is resolved effectively, it can lead to creativity and personal growth. It can become a source of innovation, continuous improvement, and competitive advantage. Effective conflict resolution skills can make a significant difference between positive and negative consequences of conflict. In addition, organizational culture and structure are important contributors to organizational conflict. By resolving conflict successfully, one can resolve many problems brought into the surface by conflict, and reach many unexpected benefits. These include increased competitiveness, better understanding and group cohesion, as well as improved self-knowledge. When conflict is resolved and managed well, it expands people’s awareness and gives them better insights into how they can reach their own goals without undermining those of other people. In addition, team members can develop stronger mutual respect, and a renewed ability to work together. Conflict forces people to question their goals and helps them to prioritize and focus better. This will enhance their effectiveness.

Conflict is caused by individual sources such as diversity, stress, role confusion, lack of work/life balance, and differences in attitude, personality, perception, and locus of control. Organizational sources of conflict include mechanistic organizational structure, strict hierarchy and line of command, poor communication, and bureaucracy. This can be further escalated by lack of resources, inflexibility to environment, and poor morale as well as overall negative organizational culture. The good news that there are many ways to overcome these challenges. Learning organizations are organizations that are skilled in managing conflict and learning from mistakes in a continuous fashion. Innovation is an important result of learning and occurs only when people are willing to experiment and be assertive, sharing their ideas and creativity. When conflict is approached in a proactive and positive manner, and managed well, it can become this source of learning and creativity. Learning builds culture, which impacts strategy and forms structure. Everything is connected according to the system’s model of organization.

If conflict is not handled effectively, the results can be very damaging. Conflicting goals can quickly turn into personal dislikes and teamwork can break down. Talent can be wasted as people disengage from their work, and the organization can end up in a vicious downward spiral of negativity and blame. To keep a team or organization working effectively, one needs to stop this downward spiral as soon as possible. To do this, it helps to understand two of the theories that lie behind effective conflict resolution techniques. These include conflict styles by Thomas and Kilmann and the Interest-Based Relational Approach. In the 1970’s Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann identified five main styles of dealing with conflict that vary in their degrees of cooperativeness and assertiveness. They argued that people typically have a preferred conflict resolution style. However they also noted that different styles were most useful in different situations. Interest-Based Relational Approach is a conflict resolution strategy that respects individual differences while helping people avoid becoming too entrenched in a fixed position. These two models are a good start in the journey of positive conflict management.

Dr. Tomi Wahlström is Vice President of Academic Affairs at the United States Sports Academy.

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