Most business professionals I know will go to great lengths to take a neutral position on internal business conflicts, on the assumption that all conflict is bad for the company as well as their political future.
Of course, any highly emotional and unmanaged conflict can certainly lead to chaos and a dysfunctional organization. Your challenge as a leader is to encourage and reward healthy conflicts, while managing them to productive and innovative results.
To get you started on the right foot, here are the key principles that I see most often working:
1. Make the resolution a part of a larger process.
Before you get too deep into an issue, make sure all parties understand the total process. If people anticipate that a decision will be made arbitrarily, or is totally outside their control, they will not be creative or willing to compromise. Make sure the process is respectful of their needs as well as yours.
For example, in a conflict over the right branding logo, it may help to understand who and how the ultimate decision will be made, including key elements driving the decision, such as targeted customers and competition. Don't let it be just a conflict over graphic design.
2. Evaluate conflict win-lose versus win-win potential.
Most business issues have some negative implications, as well as positive. It's up to you as a leader to understand and be able to explain all sides of an issue. Unfortunately, some team members may see all differences as win-lose battles, which makes conflict resolution painful and emotional.
3. Show openness to exploration and creativity.
By demonstrating that you have not locked in a specific solution, and are willing to explore alternatives, you avoid the tendency for an opponent to take a hard position and not listen to your perspective. The more alternatives that you communicate, the more likely you are to find a win-win one.
4. Always postulate or support a win-win solution.
The most effective leaders look for win-win alternatives, where both sides benefit. These allow change and innovation, without the destructive impact that keeps good people from wanting to engage. I find that most differences in perspective between smart people can be turned into wins for both.
5. Don't make the conflict a personal issue.
When differences become personal, the problem can quickly get lost in the human urge to win, and becomes unmanageable. Keep the conflict separate from the person, and don't make them part of the problem. The best way to do this is talk about an issue in the abstract, rather than naming real people.
If you have employees who clearly don't like each other, and insist on making every issue personal, it's time to have individual discussions to resolve that issue, before it become toxic for the whole organization. Don't hesitate to make personnel changes as required.
6. Work to collaborate rather than be a lone wolf.
Rather than take a hard stand alone, you will more often win if you approach conflicts as mutually shared problems to be solved as a team. Working together invokes relationships which can incrementally strengthen your position, and lead to more creative and satisfying solutions.
7. Demonstrate active listening in a neutral location.
Discussing tough issues in person is always better than sending text messages or emails. When face-to-face, you can better demonstrate active listening through body language and playing back what you have heard. In all cases, choose a neutral location which eliminates distractions and biases.
In every conflict, it is important as a leader to engage early, rather than ignore the problem. The longer a conflict is active, the more likely that positions will harden, and emotions will make resolution more painful than productive.
After-the-fact communication and documentation are also important, with a clearly defined resolution, follow-on action plan, and metrics to assess progress.
I believe that teams and leaders that actively encourage some conflict, and manage it with the principles highlighted here, make better and more timely decisions, as well as improving their satisfaction with their roles and their company. In these difficult times, it is even more important to be part of a mature and high-functioning team.