Encouraging Differences Whilst Managing Conflicts

Encouraging Differences Whilst Managing Conflicts

Differences are the spark to a blast of a conflict. Differences are also the waves that surf into creativity and innovation. Most innovations would not have seen the light of the day if it were not for someone challenging the status quo, challenging what was acceptable, challenging the norms. The tool used by humans to challenge thus, is the tool of “voicing their differences”. Recent Supreme Court judgements show that if it were not for the differences that made petitioners’ knock the doors of years of traditions, practices, and beliefs, we would not have seen the paradigm changes in laws that we are seeing.


In Quotes “Recent Supreme Court judgements show that if it were not for the differences that made petitioners’ knock the doors of years of traditions, practices, and beliefs, we would not have seen the paradigm changes in laws that we are seeing.


In organisations, ideas thrive when there are differences, disruptions happen when innovative leaders challenge the status quo. The whole start-up universe has been in its own quest of discovering the next idea by openly encouraging differences in the existing ways of doing things. In India, we have seen our local start-ups such as Flipkart challenging the idea of readers going to buy books in stores, Ola challenging the concept of having self-owned, chauffer driven cars, Big Basket challenging the belief that an Indian will always want to touch and feel vegetables before they buy them.


And, I am sure in the founder-led garages, differences are what made these thoughts thrive and saw unicorns in the making. On the other hand, we have observed founders of established start-up as well as established companies facing an exodus (self‑initiated or board influenced) when the same differing voices could not be managed, leading to poisoning of the environment, thus leading to distrust and loss of reputation.


So, let us understand how the encouraged differences can move on to become unmanaged conflicts.


What is Conflict? It can be described as a disagreement among individuals or groups characterized by bitterness and hostility.


How Differences become Conflicts: Understanding the levels of conflict


Discomfort Or Differences: What initially starts as discomfort or differences between individuals and/or teams in meetings, discussions or conversations, slowly simmers on, if not closed, to being part of gossip aka grapevine that starts creating perceptions, prejudice, wrong intention interpretation in the minds of one of the parties or both parties at times. This simmer if unalerted and resolved, is an incident bound to occur.


Incident: The incident as and when it happens flares the focus away from the issue or challenge to radar itself on the people who are creating opinions. This flare leaves a bad taste in the other party’s mouth and relationships begin to get soured.


Misunderstanding: If not resolved at this stage, the flare blazes into misunderstanding, leading to feelings of distrust, disagreements without listening, blame game etc.


Tension: The tension is noticeable between the parties, and the wait for a flare up starts with louder gossips, back-biting, strong opinions against people, not attending the meetings, no response to emails, bcc to seniors and high politicisation of the environment. 


Crisis: And then, the small nudge, and the situation volcanoes to a full-blown crisis. After this, everything starts sliding downwards; relationships, trust, conversations, working together, and, it even affects outside the office environment where the parties do not even interact in cafeterias.


We know that conflict is a natural phenomenon of being human; clashes of thoughts and ideas is a part of living. It is a way to emerge with more meaningful realizations that can be helpful to the individuals involved to understand the situation and/or better themselves. It helps a variety of opinions to surface that can in turn also encourage disruptive and innovative ideas in an organisation.


However, if the culture in the organisation does not support differences, or, in other words, if individuals attach their egos to their already diverging opinions, and, if that opinion gets rejected by the other or the group, and, the individual feels that this means a loss of credibility or loss or rejection, then the whole situation can turn destructive!


So, the key is to managing conflicts is that the culture needs to encourage differences. However, Leaders should stay alert and agile if they notice that the differences is now moving further down and can soon turn out to be a full-blown crisis.


Reasons for conflicts in organisations

Conflict of interest between parties

· ​​​​​​Communication barriers

· Dependence on a single person by the Manager

· Differences in treating people in the organisation

· Higher Performance expectations

· Lack of cooperation by certain people, teams and/or functions


Unresolved prior conflicts


Resolution and Managing Conflict Approaches


When differences begin to navigate towards crisis, it is important for people concerned or the Manager to start managing the situation with the following approaches:


Win-Win Mind-set: Start by exploring each concerned individuals’ mind-set. If one wants a Win, and, if that person is willing to make the other person Lose, then the Conflict shall remain unresolved. Therefore, one needs approach from a Win‑Win mind-set i.e. “I want the other person to Win too and without me losing.”


Establish WOWs: Every team that encourages open differences should start by facilitating a Ways of Working (WOW) document for the group. It makes everyone aware of how the discussions are going to move, how differing voices are going to be encouraged, and, how to reach a consensus. Also get agreements on the ‘how’ of respectfully putting-up ones’ differences, “how” the discussion on people’s attachment to a particular proposition should be within that open space of discussion and not move outside the meeting room.


In Quotes “… Start by facilitating a Ways of Working (WOW) document for the group. It makes everyone aware of how the discussions are going to move, how differing voices are going to be encouraged, and, how to reach a consensus.”


Call-Out: Acceptance that the conflict is brewing up and is required that the team members sense it through their observations of people’s behaviours. If you sense discomfort in people behaviours towards each other, it is important to call-out what is being seen. This is especially important in the early stages of the conflict, when differences are being noticed, and, one can sense that these differences are impacting people’s behaviour towards each other.


Focus on converged desired outcome


This comes in when the level of conflict has moved beyond the incident phase, and, is therefore important that it gets resolved NOW. Get the parties to articulate the desired outcome of the resolution. This means that you need to ask both parties the big picture they need to focus on while working through the crisis. If individuals have different outcomes in mind, first converging these outcomes into one common desired outcome is important for the conflict to be resolved. If the conversation diverts to earlier incidents and misunderstandings at any point in time, it is good to articulate the Combined Desired Outcome, pause the past, and move forward. If you are one of the parties in the conflict, you need to bring focus to the Desired Outcome. At times, it helps to actually have another person facilitate this resolution.


Willingness to Resolve: Or is there an unwillingness to Resolve?  Most of the times this unwillingness does not help manage conflict resolution. You need to explore whether you are stuck up (hard) in the escalation of the conflict i.e. the words and the behaviours that were used. Or, in the garb of self-respect, is your ego attached to the unwillingness to resolve?


Empathy: “Empathy is walking with another person into the deeper chambers of his self – while still maintaining some separateness. It involves experiencing the feelings of another without losing one’s own identity. It involves accurate response to another’s needs without being infected by them” – Robert Bolton in People Skills (Sidney: Simon & Schuster, 1987).


People should be trained on practical empathy (as opposed to theoretically understanding it), which will support in situations not moving to crisis. Empathy enhances the ability to listen first and then respond.


Needs & Offers: An interesting way of resolving conflicts that have already reached crisis stage is to facilitate each party in the conflict to write down their NEEDS. Then these sets of needs are shared with the opposite party. Focussing on the Combined Desired Outcome as articulated above, the other party starts writing their OFFERS with support criteria’s in the form of:


A = Absolute support,

B = Bounded Support (Partial),

C = Conditional Support (Barter),

D= Denied.


Conversations on these should be encouraged to check whether the D’s can move to be a C or a B.  This helps people to work with and around the conflict. Let us also be clear that in spite of all these approaches, there would be situations, in which due to the scarring of individual egos, the conflicts may never be resolved, and, if this happens in rare circumstances, you may have to release one of the parties to the conflict from the team or the organisation. Having them continue in the environment may harm the team dynamics in the long run!


Therefore, remember early prevention is better than cure later!

Ajit K. Kamath CPF, is the Principal Enabler at WizTalks Management Consultants. He has been in the field of Training and Facilitation for 23 years, and now into Executive Coaching. He is one of the Founders of the India Chapter of International Association of Facilitators. He has also been a practitioner of Drama & Improv Tools in organisational settings and has been a part of Applied Improv Network. Ajit can be contacted on or on


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