Resolving Hot Conflicts: Skills for Managers

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Conventional wisdom suggests that team conflicts be resolved by focusing on the task at hand and avoiding interpersonal relationship issues. However, Amy Edmonson of Harvard Business School and Diana McLain Smith of The Monitor Group argue that this approach only works with issues that are “cool” because they can be resolved using objective means.

On the other hand, “hot conflicts” involve differences in core beliefs, interests, and values. These researchers identified three common symptoms of this type of conflict: (1) members of the team continually argue the same points; (2) discussions become personal when the team reaches an impasse and accusations are made aloud both at and away from the table; and (3) when negative attributions set in, emotions among team members flare and progress stops.

While these types of conflicts may seem intractable, there are several skills managers can utilize according to Edmonson and Smith. First, managers can focus on their own thoughts and emotions and how they may be hijacking their ability to deal with heated conflicts reasonably.

Secondly, they must reciprocally manage conversations so that difficult topics and feelings can be addressed without a concern that participants will have emotional outbursts.

Finally, the successful manager must develop and maintain long term team relationships by building trust and investing in crucial individual relationships. In particular, managers must pay special attention to tensions and relationships that lie on “organizational fault-lines” where internal conflicts frequently occur. They must also take responsibility for the ways in which what is said by each side of a conflict affects the other.

Understanding the dynamic quality of these relationships will provide significant insight for the manager and help team members recognize their role in the conflict.

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