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3 rules for managing conflict on your command staff

Managing conflict in your department can be a thankless task, and if not carefully approached, it can lead to feelings of favoritism, or even serve to reinforce a “us versus them” attitude

In a utopian world, police agencies never have disagreements, every squad and bureau in the department supports each other, and command staff meetings always end in smiles and handshakes. Unfortunately, that world has yet to be discovered.

Police organizations are no different than any other organization with employees. We have tasks, goals, and objectives that need to be accomplished and by working as teams we can often accomplish things more effectively and efficiently. But despite our best efforts to work together at all times, we all come to the table with different agendas, ideas, and needs.

The patrol bureau, for example, values efficiency and productivity: Get to your calls, handle your calls, do your report, and get to the next call. The investigative bureau, however, wants detailed and complete reports that provide leads and gives them a case they can build on. Meanwhile, the traffic bureau can’t seem to find enough available patrol cars for their weekend assignments. Unit commanders naturally become advocates for their groups.

To complicate things, when conflict does arise, there is an instinctive tendency to bunker down and reinforce the lines between competing groups. For the organizational leader, managing conflict between groups can be a thankless task, and if not carefully approached it can lead to feelings of favoritism, or even serve to reinforce the “us versus them” attitude. Here are three rules to keep in mind when conflict does arise.

Rule #1: Understand the Source of the Conflict
One of the first challenges facing a leader is to analyze the source of the conflict and determine if it was pre-existing, or artificially introduced. Most conflicts among organizational teams or members result from one of the following issues:

• Competition over resources
• Conflicting goals and deadlines
• Lack of direction

Competition over resources — whether it is personnel or equipment — is one of the most frequent causes for conflict. This problem often becomes more apparent at budget-time, which is usually the only chance we have during the year to request more resources. The goal for the leader in managing this type of conflict is to come as close to a “win-win” situation as possible.

For example, a police leader may consider approving the patrol bureau’s budget request for laser units in exchange for a temporary assignment of a patrol officer to help detectives with a major case. Both ‘sides’ get something they need, and the results benefit the organization on all fronts.

Sometimes we inadvertently introduce conflict between groups by assigning conflicting goals or deadlines, or failing to give full and complete directions. This is where the leader must step back, realize where things went awry, and make the corrections necessary to align group goals and deadlines with clearly understood assignments. By clearly identifying priorities, establishing lines of authority, and assigning responsibilities, the leader sets the direction towards cooperative effort.

Rule #2: Recognize Useful Conflict
There are two distinct types of conflict: conflict that is functional and can build stronger teams, processes, and working relationships, and dysfunctional conflict can destroy the cohesion of an agency.

Functional conflict can be useful if the focus of the conflict stays on the task or problem at hand, and doesn’t become personal. Functional conflict can introduce positive change to the organization. When forced to deal with problems or limitations, we get creative in order to get things done. We find new ways of doing things, new approaches to issues, and better ways to communicate. Furthermore, when individuals and groups are successful in working together and overcoming internal conflict, it tends to increase the sense of “team” across competing groups and gives them the confidence that they can work together despite opposing interests.

Dysfunctional conflict, on the other hand, is nothing but destructive. When “win at all costs” becomes the most important goal, and when gearing up for the conflict consumes more energy and resources than the benefits that could possibly be gained, it is time for the conflict to stop.

Rule #3: Know when to Reframe and Refocus
Just like hitting the reset button, there comes a time when the agency or unit leader must pull everyone together, bring them back to square one, and restart the process of getting things done. When the level of conflict starts to threaten the willingness of staff members to communicate, and when group leaders identify more with the goals of the group than with the goals of the organization, it’s time for the leader to press that button.

An effective way to accomplish this is to change the dynamics of the groups or the lines of communication. Designating subgroups to address smaller issues, or requiring daily face-to-face meetings between group leaders can help to accomplish this.

From there, the leader can build on this new group framework by shifting the focus of the groups towards common organizational goals and on more achievable objectives. The goal here is not to re-hash old problems, but to establish a new sense of shared success, build a winning streak of cooperation, and remind everyone of their combined responsibilities.

It is unlikely that we will ever find a way to have an organization where conflict never exists. But by understanding that some conflict can be beneficial — and by knowing when the line of dysfunctional conflict has been crossed — you can build a more productive and cohesive staff.

Barry Reynolds is an author, speaker and public safety consultant specializing in police policy and leadership issues. He is the former founder and director of The Center for Excellence in Public Safety Leadership, and Associate Professor of Criminal Justice. In addition to 31 years of experience as a law enforcement officer and supervisor, Barry also served with the Wisconsin Department of Justice as the Senior Training Officer for career development and leadership. He is a columnist on law enforcement management and leadership issues, and regular presenter at state and national conferences. Barry holds a degree in Business, and a Master of Science in Management.