In our books on conflict competence, we have explored not only how to improve competence but perhaps more importantly—why. In order to make the effort to change patterns of thinking and behavior, adults need to have a good reason. Fortunately, in the case of conflict, there are many that can benefit both individuals and organizations.
People usually think of conflict as something negative and as a consequence their initial reaction is either to avoid it or to try to do something that makes it go away. In line with this thinking, the key benefit of conflict competence is lowering the costs associated with conflict. These include costs such as management time spent on conflict rather than on more productive pursuits, employee turnover caused by conflict, absenteeism, and in more extreme contexts violence and vandalism. By improving people’s ability to manage conflict, these costs can be lessened and this is often the most obvious return on investment to organizations. Improved conflict skills can also lessen the emotional toll that conflict takes on individuals and relationships.
We often ask people if they talk more or less to another person with whom they are in conflict, the answer is almost always—less. When people talk less, they come up with fewer ideas, vet options less vigorously, and consequently make poorer decisions. By improving conflict competence people become freer to debate issues in ways that uncover new approaches and review them carefully. It also facilitates broader buy-in to decisions because people have felt that they had a chance to participate in the process of developing solutions.
While conflict is inevitable, it does not have to result in negative outcomes. Whether people get good or bad results is affected by the way they respond to it. Improving cognitive, emotional, and behavioral skills related to conflict management helps develop conflict competence which in turn can improve outcomes for individuals and their organizations.