Managing Conflict


Is internal conflict destroying your customer experience?

Conflict can seriously damage you organisation's customer experience if it is left unchecked

Conversations with customers:

• 'Oh, they don't know what they are talking about'.
• 'I'm afraid they're a bit out of touch'.
• 'Well Accounts were wrong'.

Overheard asides about colleagues:
• 'Well, that's just typical of them'.
• 'Can you believe it, they promised the customer next day delivery'.
• 'It's stupid, but that's what they told me to say and I'm not going to go against her'.

Internal warfare can break out in even the best-run organisations: For example, Marketing launch a big promotion and forget to tell service.  Distribution change a working pattern and staff object.  Disruption and ill feeling result which can damage relationships externally with customers and suppliers and internally with colleagues and internal customers and thus stunt the growth of the organisation.  At Cable and Wireless the conflict of the two most senior figures in the organisation led to such problems that both were asked to resign.  A tragic example is at Grantham Hospital where a nurse, Beverley Alitt was not detected soon enough before killing patients in her care because members of the team were in conflict and failed to pass on to one another vital concerns they were privately noticing.

In this article the authors discuss how internal conflict should be managed to benefit the customer.

Increasingly, service organisations are changing rapidly becoming flatter and more complex, with many more overlapping responsibilities, cross-functional responsibilities and project teams.  This change means that different objectives and priorities will frequently arise, and the resulting tensions and misunderstandings can simmer or boil over into conflict.  Self-awareness and skill are critical, but may well be lacking.

How do you react to conflict?

People's attitude to conflict is rarely discussed.  Many people back away from discord, wary of the problems it may cause.  This reluctance may lead to avoidance of potential problem areas or suppression of disagreement.  The authors recently worked with a customer experience manager and her team to help confront the behaviour of two team members, whose clashes were having a negative impact on the customer experience.  Team members were, of course, aware of the problem, and had been for some time but no-one was willing to confront the issue in case they, too, became embroiled.  However, denial doesn't mean conflict goes away and it may get worse.

The other side to this is that some people relish conflict.  The late Robert Maxwell was said to welcome a battle, haranguing people in meetings and threatening them.  Some customers may deliberately adopt this stance in an attempt to get their own way.

Avoidance and aggression are not the only ways in which people react to conflict.  Unassertive people give in and unwillingly collaborate with the other person.  This may lead to an apparent resumption of normal working relationships but often at the expense of one person's self esteem and a rather disengaged service team.

In many cases it pays to take a different stance and adopt a win/win approach trying to reach a compromise with the person.  For example, a customer experience manager may agree to take on additional administrative workload from another department if, in turn, the department is prepared to help them out when they are busy.  By its very win/win nature compromise involves give and take.  Research shows that few people adopt a collaborative approach to finding a solution, which fully satisfies the needs of both parties;  it requires constructive building of common ground which starts off with thorough understanding on both sides.  In our example is the customer experience the best department to take over the administration?  Why has the need arisen in the first place?  When are they busy peaks in the department?  Is the other department acting as back-up the best use of resource?  What are the options?  These searching questions can help form the basis of a lasting agreement.

Research backs up that more constructive and supportive behaviours towards customers and colleagues are a lot more effective than merely flatly stating obstacles and difficulties, which can drive people into corners they find difficult to back out of.  And it leaves the problem unresolved.

Personality differences within the team

Lack of personal chemistry is one of the commonest explanations for strife; some people are simply incompatible, different as chalk and cheese.  We have used two questionnaires, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® and Belbin Team Roles, very successfully to help people understand the positive aspects of the range of personalities and behaviours that people portray and therefore to view their colleagues in a new light.  Different styles then stand a better chance of being appreciated rather than ridiculed or dismissed.

Lack of interpersonal skills

Poor interpersonal skills are a strong contributory factor in many disputes.  We worked with one young, rapidly growing software house for several years on just this issue, emphasising:

• Listening skills, really hearing and understanding the other person's point of view.
• Assertiveness, putting views over confidently and clearly.
• Negotiation skills, reaching an agreement acceptale to both parties.
• Meeting handling.
• Team working.

As one manager put it, 'The results have been beneficial all round.  We still have internal differences, but now we talk about them and try to resolve the issues rather than harbour grudges.  We have improved how well we listen and question our customers and really understand their concerns'.

Role conflict, lack of clear objectives

In our experience a lot of conflict arises because of unclear definition and awareness of roles and responsibilities and a lack of shared understanding of what they or the organisation should be doing.  Harvester Restaurants manage its outlets through self-managing teams.  They regularly meet to clarify who is doing what and review progress against target they have a hand in setting.  This cohesiveness is positive for the customer.

Poor communication

When people are starved of information rumours start and mistrust can arise.  Surveys have repeatedly shown managers pronouncing that communication is vital, yet being too busy to carry this out on a regular basis.  Birmingham Midshires Financial Services lays great stress on communicating regularly with employees to keep them informed of the business position and provide relevant information which affects them.  They conduct annual employee surveys to ensure the methods they use are effective.

Change and uncertainty

Change and uncertainty are a breeding ground for conflict to develop because well-established communications patterns are disrupted and stress levels are often high.  Cigna UK undertook a large-scale business process re-engineering.  As implementation proceeded it took a lot of time and trouble to understand reservations and difficulties expressed by employees and build modifications into its plans.  Lastly it involved customers in the process ; change implementation teams invited groups of customers to come in to see how the change was going to affect them.

Lack of openness and shared values

The more secrets and taboos in a company, the more differences can smoulder without being addressed.  One way to encourage greater openness is through 360 degree feedback, a method of all-round performance appraisal from colleagues, team members and even customers.  Fedex is one of a growing number of companies who have used this method as part of a culture change strategy to build a more open climate where people can speak out.  To promote commitment to a common set of values, healthcare provider BUPA agreed a set of leadership behaviours to encourage its managers to live its values.  Managers throughout the business took part in a 360 degree feedback process, which allowed individuals to receive feedback from individuals across the organisation as to how well they were living the values.  This was followed up by personal action plans.

Strategies to manage conflict effectively

1. Increase knowledge and skills in managing the conflict handling process

We believe everyone could benefit from better understanding of conflict resolution techniques.  This especially applies to service staff, who are working in environments where they need to manage angry or complaining customers, either inside or outside the organisation and may often be undergoing a high degree of change.  Here is the outline of the ground we might cover during a typical two-day conflict-handling workshop:

• Sources of conflict between individuals
• The consequences of conflict
• Judging peoples' reaction to conflict
• Conflict management strategies 
• Skill and techniques 
• Defusing anger and aggression  
• Personal action plans

2. Recognise everyone's talents

Jack Welch at GE has said 'GE maintains a huge trade surplus in talent.  That's my job'.  He actively promotes everyone's talents and contribution.  He is careful to avoid the mistake of thinking everyone should be the same.  An enemy of understanding others, is the common assumption that the world should be the same as you, and if not then the other person or group is deficient or wrong!

We described earlier the use of the Belbin Team Role inventory because the results make a lot of sense to those who complete it in order to understand how important it is to have a variety of different roles in a team.  The other helpful tool is the personality questionnaire, Questionnaire Myers-Briggs Type Indicator®, which needs trained interpretation.  It helps people to see others in quite a different way and to develop strategies and take practical steps to deal effectively with them who approach work and life differently from themselves.

3. Increase shared team understanding and values

Old style command and control businesses used to demand rigid conformity, which could lead to mindless uniformity and inappropriately sticking to rules.  This is bad for ideas and bad for meeting individual customer needs.

To help promote understanding, sharing of common team aims and values are often used successfully.  Team building needs experienced facilitation if it is not to degenerate into a false 'happy club' atmosphere or friction conversely where friction gets out of hand.  Equally, exercises to generate mission and values statements are meaningless if full involvement is not encouraged and actions and periodic reviews are not put in place.

All teams should be wary of the dangers of 'group think' and the Abilene Paradox.  This Paradox was so-called because of the story where everyone in a family group on holiday went off to the small town of Abilene because no one spoke up, each person believing he or she was the only dissenter).  This story emphasises the pitfalls of a complacent group where speaking your mind is discouraged.  Our experience suggests that this danger is more common than is widely acknowledged in the excessive enthusiasm to create team spirit and harmony.

4. Recognise and address conflict

Conflict is a common occurrence in teams, particularly those which are newly formed or where new team members join an established group.  'Storming' is a recognised phase of team development.  When conflict does occur, it is no use looking to others to take the lead.

If it is difficult for an individual team member to address conflict in their group, teams can usefully draw on the help of a coach or facilitator.  This person acts as a neutral and independent observer whose role is to help the group achieve its objectives.  One of the authors recently facilitated a team away day for a group of senior managers whose performance was felt to be lacklustre.  The team had been formed nine months previously but had never taken the opportunity to review how it worked together.  As the day progressed, it became clear that there were serious differences of opinion and clashes amongst team members.  The facilitator helped the group to surface these issues in a non-threatening way.  Although team members found the experience uncomfortable at the time, afterwards they reflected that it had been cathartic and helped them look towards more constructive ways of working together and start performing.

5. Clarify expectations

Clarifying expectations does much to ease tension where roles are hazy and misunderstandings build up ill feeling.  As a team exercise, we have used a simple format for team members to write down and then discuss one-to-one individual expectations with everyone in their team.

We have used this exercise to develop a whole range of teams - newly formed project teams, established ones as well as with internal and external facing customer groups.

Handling conflict in summary

If we were to put advice into a nutshell we would pass on these tips to manage conflict:

Know yourself

Understand how you typically respond to conflict.  Practise being more flexible by putting yourself in the other person's shoes.


Listen carefully to words and feelings.


Reflect back what someone said/felt to build greater respect and shared understanding.

Don't get tunnel vision

Be clear on your case but don?t become too fixated on your point of view.


Be prepared to negotiate to reach an acceptable agreement.

Consider the effects on people

Review the implications of major decisions on other people:  it's easy to lose other people's involvement and commitment as you drive ahead.


Communicate regularly and build relationships, even (and especially) when damage has been caused.

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