Hire for Conflict

Effectively hiring for constructive conflict in your organization.

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Hire for Conflict

Effectively hiring for constructive conflict in your organization.


If you’ve been incredibly fortunate, you’ve never worked in a dysfunctional team or organization scarred by conflict (or conflict avoidance). For the rest of us, it’s more a matter what type of dysfunction we’ve had to work with. These dysfunctions can tend to boil down to four general cultures/behaviors of dysfunctional workplaces and teams that we’ll call: willful blindness, cold tensions, skirmishes, and active warfare.

  • Willful blindness: The team or workplace is dysfunctional because it passively ignores differences of opinion or priorities and people feel uncomfortable admitting they don’t agree with the group or their leaders.
  • Cold tensions: The team or workplace is dysfunctional because everyone knows that a potential conflict is brewing and that their differences matter to the people and/or teams involved. Everyone feels the tension and pressure, but people are actively avoiding discussing it in more than gossip. People don’t say anything because they hope it will go away on its own.
  • Skirmishes: The conflict is turning toxic and the team or workplace is dysfunctional because it is marked by bullying or ostracization of individuals or teams. There are faultlines forming between people and teams as tensions mount. People feel pressured to take sides or must constantly assert their neutrality.
  • Active warfare: The team or workplace is dysfunctional because it is constantly being roiled by wide-spread emotional and relationship conflicts between people and/or teams. These include keeping resources from others, personal insults, and hurtful arguments between people and teams. It is a threatening atmosphere in which to work.

I’m not here to expound upon a new typology of conflict in the workplace (there are plenty to choose from).

Instead, here’s the takeaway for this blog post: Conflict will happen and can be good for a team or organization’s innovation and performance but it will become dysfunctional if it is not managed effectively.

If you are hiring for a team-based organization, especially if you are hiring for leaders, you should try to assess how people manage conflict and whether that matches the kinds of conflict that are typical in your organization.

Research points to five conflict management styles:

  • Avoidant: Postponing or simply withdrawing from a situation of conflict (or potential conflict). This style often refuses to acknowledge that a conflict even exists.
  • Domineering: A win-or-lose conflict management style. This style goes all out to win his or her objective without considering the needs or perspectives of others.
  • Collaborative (a.k.a. Integrative): Characterized by an open and honest exchange of information and an examination of differences. This conflict management style makes an effort to reach a solution that is mutually acceptable for both parties. Problem solving results from open and direct communication.
  • Accepting (a.k.a. Obliging): This style of conflict management rolls over and accepts the position of the other. People who use this style of conflict management prefer to surrender completely in a conflict to maintain their positive relationships with others.
  • Compromising: This conflict management style negotiates to find a minimally viable solution to the conflict. Either both parties give something up, they split the difference, or they seek a quick middle ground. The difference between collaborative and compromising is that the outcome from a collaborative style tends to be a mutually satisfactory and long-term solution, whereas a compromise might need to be revisited to find a long-term solution.

Certain conflicts lend themselves well to different types or levels of conflict management styles. However, for substantive conflict (conflict that matters for the team or organization), avoidant, domineering, and accepting all may represent the worst approaches.

  • Avoidant styles tend to lead to festering problems that aren’t being resolved which can lead to stagnation or escalating dysfunction (aka cold tensions).
  • Domineering styles tend to lead to conflict (between two people or teams who won’t give any ground) or a single person’s domination of the conversation and the team, which leads to the detriment of the team’s culture and innovation.
  • Accepting styles tend to lead to groupthink and stagnation (and willful blindness). Rather than raise issues or thoughts that conflict with what the leader or others in the team want, by accepting them the team remains blind to weaknesses or ways to improve.
  • Disagreements and conflict over tasks, goals, and resources are inevitable, even within a team. How will you handle a situation where you disagree with another person on your team about the goals set on a project. [Wait & Listen] Do you have any past experience handling these kinds of disagreements? If so, can you give me an example?
  • Tell me about a time when you faced conflict with people you were working with. What was the conflict and how was it resolved? [Wait & Listen] What, specifically, did you do to address and resolve the conflict?
  • Tell me about how you would foster constructive conflict in a team to improve a project or develop new ideas? [Wait & Listen] What do you think is the most effective approach to building constructive conflict and why do you feel that way?

When hiring, you should look for people who have good examples of collaborative and compromising styles of conflict management. Here are a few types of questions you can use when hiring team members and leaders.

These are some important behavioral indicators you can use to identify a good answer to a conflict management interview question:

  • Active Listening - Candidate listens to the needs and perspectives of others and understands the feelings and meanings behind their communication.
  • Proactive Engagement - The candidate shows they proactively identify potential conflict areas and address it without avoidance or denial.
  • Diplomatic Assertiveness: The candidate shows they can honestly express their needs and feelings while balancing their assertiveness with respect, tact, and sensitivity to the perspectives and feelings of others.
  • Persuasion: The candidate shows they can advocate and persuade others on the worth of their perspectives and ideas.
  • Conflict Coaching: The candidate shows they can effectively coach others to engage respectfully in a constructive dialogue about their disagreements, differing perspectives, and ideas (This is an important behavior in a leader) .

 

Oh, and by the way, a person’s emotional intelligence predicts the type of conflict management style they will use (here’s an extra research article for those interested). You might consider adding some interview questions evaluating candidates on their emotional intelligence if it’s a role that will be working closely with other people (or customers).

To summarize: Millions of people have to put up with dysfunctional work environments with toxic conflict (or conflict avoidance), so do us all a favor and remember to account for conflict management skills when hiring for new team members and leaders. Doing so will make life better for everyone (and increase satisfaction and innovation!). It will also save you a ton of money when you don’t have to hire a consultant (like me) to give you some tough love and evidence-based interventions to deal with your dysfunction.

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Click here for a list of 100 competency-based interview questions (including emotional intelligence questions) if you are looking to build a better behavioral interview.

One last thing! Do you want to improve your hiring process and the structure of your interviews? Are you having problems with conflict, culture, or other issues within your teams or company as a whole? Do you want to hire better or get a fresh outlook on some organizational issues? Feel free to reach out to my team here.

Charlie Scott
ABOUT THE AUTHOR | Charlie Scott
Charlie is an Industrial-Organizational Psychologist with nearly a decade of experience in applied research and organizational consulting. As an expert in individual, team, and leader assessment (and development) he is passionate about using science to make a fairer and more effective hiring process. When he isn’t creating new Journeyfront assessments, working with clients to improve their hiring, or swimming in data he collaborates with peers from around the world to publish and present ideas and research to push the field of assessment forward. Beyond the professional sphere, Charlie enjoys traveling the world, meeting new people, trying new things, or even spending a quiet night in with his devilish cat and reading a good book.

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