by Roché Snyman
Created: 28 March 2015

conflict mngmt1Managing conflict and confrontation

Workforce diversity
One of the most regular conversations coming up in team meetings and coaching revolves around the issue of conflict management.  South Africans are blessed, but also challenged by an immensely diversified workforce, which often results in misunderstandings, different expectations and values – hence fertile ground for much strive!

Conflict profiles

Johnson (1986) describes five metaphorical conflict styles that people adopt when faced with confrontation, of which the ferocious shark and the meek turtle are the opposite extremes. We all know “sharks” who always aim to be winners in any confrontation.  They use tactics like attacking, overpowering, overwhelming and intimidating others, and are not concerned with the needs of the other party in the “war”.  This is essentially an aggressive communication style, resulting in “win-lose” outcomes.

At the other end are the meek “turtles” who withdraw into their shells to avoid confrontation at all cost.  They see conflict as being destructive and a threat to relationships.  The person who has a passive communication style - thus never voicing an opinion and always “escaping” - is a perfect example. Turtles use avoidance strategies like leaving the room, outward submission and compliance, and the “silent treatment” to deal with confrontation – never believing that there is a possibility for a good outcome. Another win-lose example!


Interestingly, both sharks and turtles usually fear conflict - they just respond to it differently! The one thinks that overpowering the enemy would get the conflict out of the way soonest, whilst the other runs to the ends of the earth if necessary to avoid being drawn into a confrontation.

Paradigm shift needed

Not all conflict is bad and to be avoided.  In fact, constructive conflict is necessary for continued development and creative problem-solving, as it provides energy for growth.   Conflict is also seen as an important characteristic of teams, ensuring creative problem solving and as a prerequisite for cohesion. Thus teams that can confront each other constructively will have more team solidarity and loyalty to each other, as well as better output, than those with destructive conflict behaviors.

The “how-to” of conflict

Johnson’s owl is seen as the ideal conflict style.    Owls view conflicts as opportunities for problem solving and always go for win-win solutions.   They are generally not satisfied until a solution is found that achieves the goals of both parties, and until the tensions and negative feelings have been fully resolved.

Owls are assertive instead of aggressive or passive.  The assertive person would give his or her opinion truthfully, but with tact, to preserve both the rights of himself and the other party. Other guidelines include:

•    Respect others and their opinions, try to understand where they are coming from

•    Be assertive, tactfully say what you think and what you need - be honest

•    Collaborate with others, don’t see them as the “enemy” if they disagree with you

•    Work towards solving problems instead of blaming people

•    Go for win-win outcomes, even if you have to compromise a bit on your ideal outcome

•    Forgive others for their offenses and move on!

Conflict can help a team to move forward with new levels of cohesion, and more creative and innovative ideas than before.   This is especially true when team members don’t react to everything as if it is meant to be personal, but rather focus on the problem at hand.  Remember the old saying: “play the ball, not the man!”.

Article written by: Roché Snyman

Executive and Business Coach


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