Conflict resolution ... from a lawyer?

  • Published
  • By Maj. Steve Dubriske
  • 71st Flying Training Wing
Many good books have been written about what personal characteristics are found in great leaders. Character traits such as integrity, honesty and decisiveness are some of the more commonly cited qualities possessed by admired leaders.
Rather than write on these characteristics, however, I wanted to pick a leadership quality you will not find highlighted in most books about great leaders. This quality is conflict resolution; that is, the ability to resolve disputes within your organization.
I am sure at this point most of you are asking yourselves what a lawyer possibly could say about resolving disputes. Lawyers are the problem with disputes in this country, not the solution. One only has to utter the words "2000 Presidential Election" as an example of lawyers screwing it up for the rest of us. For those of you who think this way, however, I wanted to let you know it is the legal profession that is actively involved in resolving disputes outside of the litigation process, especially in the areas of labor and employment law.
Conflict is one constant in all organizations, good and bad. Conflict is always present because organizations are made up of people, not machines. As long as people have to work together, their personalities and egos will clash and cause conflict. Because of this fact of life, leaders have to be able to resolve conflict. Good leaders, I would argue, resolve conflict by applying "interest-based" resolution techniques with their subordinates. Interest-based techniques require disputing parties to work together to identify mutual interests, brainstorm solutions, evaluate options and achieve closure acceptable to both sides -- the proverbial "win-win" situation.
While a complete discussion of interest-based resolution techniques would result in my writing a book (like "Getting to Yes" by Fischer and Ury) instead of a short editorial, I wanted to spend the remainder of the article on two areas where leaders can focus to resolve disputes within their organizations.
First, leaders who best resolve conflict can separate the people from the problem. Many disputes within military organizations are emotional in nature, and thereby result in personal animosity between the parties to the dispute. The emotional factor cannot be ignored by the leader. The leader must acknowledge the emotional issues, and oftentimes allow subordinates to vent their concerns. However, a good leader will refocus the dispute on the underlying problem. By taking the emotion out of the dispute, the leader has a much better chance to arrive at a viable solution to the problem.
A technique often used to help focus on the problem is to ask the disputing parties to "walk in the other party's shoes." This technique assists the parties in gaining a better understanding of the other's perception of the problem, as well as allowing the parties to communicate the source of the problem as they see it. Understanding the other side's point of view does not mean one has to share, agree or even sympathize with it; it merely provides new perspectives that may open options previously hidden by the emotional response.
Second, an effective leader looks to have the disputing parties focus on their interests, not positions. Positions are pre-determined outcomes which may not be easily satisfied. Interests, however, are personal needs that can often be met to both parties' satisfaction. For example, an employee could bring a disability discrimination complaint against a supervisor requesting the employee be reassigned to a new work area. The employee's position (i.e., reassignment) is an outcome that may not ever be satisfied by management. By looking for the complainant's interests, and not just the entrenched position, a leader may find out the employee's entire complaint surrounds her belief she is not appreciated or recognized for her work. Satisfaction of this interest is possible, and may likely resolve the entire complaint without wasting additional resources.
Resolving disputes within the workplace is not an easy task, and the two areas discussed in this article are not the complete solution. Conflict resolution takes time and effort. However, leaders at all levels of an organization can use interest-based resolution techniques to effectively resolve disputes within their organizations.