For 15 years, I balanced my full-time career as a manager in the financial sector with my better known career as an international rugby Test match referee. Naturally, I encountered interpersonal conflict in each of these roles from time to time. What I learned from managing conflict in the heightened conditions of the rugby pitch enhanced my ability to manage tensions effectively in the business world. I have no doubt that the skills I have honed as a referee have made me a better manager at work – and, indeed, vice versa.
1. Preparation is key
Is it possible to prepare for conflict that flares up spontaneously? Absolutely. In rugby, all the preparation takes place before the game. I meet with my team of officials to outline everyone’s role and responsibility and identify potential points of conflict, such as history between teams or individuals. At the first hint of friction during the match, my team and I are ready to step in and resolve the situation promptly. This sends a signal to the players and sets the tone for the rest of the game.
Really good referees have a framework in mind for dealing with situations when they arise, which enables them to appear in control in the midst of the chaotic situations. The same is true of exceptional managers. Anticipating conflict and developing a pre-planned response enable good managers to navigate difficult situations successfully.
2. Staying calm under pressure
When tempers flare and emotions are heightened on the field, the temptation to fight fire with fire can be overwhelming. It’s vitally important as a referee not to get sucked into the tensions of the game or give into frustration if my decision is challenged. The primary source of conflict in any situation is emotion. Therefore, managing my own emotions and remaining calm are key to managing conflict effectively.
The same is true in a professional context. When I encounter conflict with a member of my team at work, managing my own response to the situation is as important, if not more so, than managing theirs.
3. Recognising others’ emotions
As a referee, I have to understand the emotions that others bring into play which have the potential to inflame the situation. This means effective communication is crucial. How I handle their reactions is paramount to the successful resolution of the situation.
In business, removing emotion from the situation is equally vital when attempting to defuse conflict. When tempers begin to flare, take emotion out of the situation, for example by keeping the conversation focused on the facts or deferring the conversation to a later date.
4. Being flexible
As a referee in high level games, it’s important that I maintain authority over the match at all times. However, that doesn’t mean I’m inflexible. There are many different ways of managing conflict and the specific situation that arises determines the strategy I will adopt. I have to think tactically. For example, at a certain point in a game I may want to keep a team or player onside, leading me to take a more lenient approach.
In the working world, managers must weigh up the importance of the issue which is the bone of contention versus the importance of the relationship when resolving conflict. Coming out on top of an argument can be a bad thing if it irreparably damages a valuable relationship with an employee.