I once heard a speaker ask an audience to raise their hands if they had managed conflict in the workplace recently. Almost every arm went up. Then she asked if they felt confident in the conflict management tools at their disposal. Few hands remained in the air.
Conflict in the workplace is often treated as a pest infestation, the idea being to resolve it as quickly and quietly as possible before it spreads. Inevitably, this often causes issues to be swept under the rug, resolved poorly or incompletely. It’s an unfortunate reality that many managers and executives would still choose that outcome over the alternative of taking a more direct approach to managing conflict in the workplace.
The simple fact is that most people are better at conflict avoidance than conflict resolution in the workplace. Instead, we strive to create collaborative cultures and measure ourselves by our ability to get along well. Disagreements are glossed over, only to be revisited and repackaged as interview fodder when the question comes up: tell me about a time when you successfully dealt with a conflict.
But how many of us are proud of our answers?
There are natural and understandable obstacles to effective conflict management. In the sections below, we’ll examine some common questions and concerns around the topic and provide a blueprint for managing conflict in the workplace.
What prevents us from practicing good conflict management?
One of the most potent obstacles to successful conflict management happens when we decide whether to address conflict head-on, actively suppress it, or simply let it resolve itself on its own. Unfortunately, the first option is often seen as the riskiest, given the potential for the problem to escalate and cause tempers to flare unnecessarily.
The threat of a visible disruption that interrupts the normal flow of the workplace and impacts productivity and efficiency looms: managers don’t want to be responsible for unleashing drama stemming from a personal conflict in the workplace. That means more indirect methods are usually favored.
The flaw in this bias toward an indirect approach exists in the assumption that temporary emotional outbursts have a more significant effect on morale than unresolved issues that simmer beneath the surface.
We consider it praiseworthy when someone puts aside their grievances to focus on the task at hand, and an organization full of such individuals is supposed to be sustainable. The costs of taking this approach can be challenging to quantify, but they exist: higher turnover, low productivity, and weaker communication are all potential side effects.
Why focus on managing conflict in the workplace?
When you address a conflict directly, you stand a far better chance of excising the root of the problem and ensuring that it doesn’t linger or rear its head in the future. The pain may seem more intense in the short term, but more often than not, this strategy leads to more engagement in the workplace and less overall stress.
It bears mentioning that poorly executed conflict management will most likely make the problem worse. When managing conflict in the workplace, it’s essential to follow the guidelines and common sense you would use for managing conflict elsewhere – at the same time, there are specific guidelines for determining how to handle conflict at work.
Where is the best place to start?
The reality is that most office conflicts arise from some misunderstanding. The easiest conflicts to deal with are ones that simply require more information to be shared in order to bring everyone up to the same level of understanding.
Sometimes – and I can’t promise this will happen too often – all it takes is for a good manager to reach out and acknowledge an issue in a way that hasn’t been done before. Sympathy is a powerful tool – taking the time to understand a problem helps ease the burden on the affected people. More often than not, understanding is the first step to resolution.
It’s also important to not demonize the other party and instantly decide that they are wrong. Taking an open approach where you set aside your emotions and listen attentively to seek to understand where the other party is coming from helps you focus on the issue and not the personality.
But sometimes you are navigating the contours of a conflict when different sides are giving different perspectives. It’s not always easy or possible to get to the truth of a matter – if this puts you at an impasse, defer to facts that can be proven or documented rather than trying to understand an uncertain position. In other words, look at the facts of the situation, and try to name it, without judging.
Who should take part in resolving a conflict in the workplace?
Aside from the parties involved, HR and the direct manager should always play a role in the process. Not all conflicts are created equal, and the response should be commensurate with the seriousness of the issue.
In this regard, workplace hierarchy is your friend. Don’t hesitate to leverage a more senior opinion if the problem feels too big. This is where having experience in dealing with conflicts can be a benefit in helping to calibrate your response. Managers and leaders with high emotional intelligence will be better prepared to resolve the conflict.
What are the best practices in conflict resolution?
Every organization’s HR department is likely to have guidelines on how to manage conflicts within the workplace. These are useful and should be heeded but not relied on exclusively.
Trying to solve a conflict formulaically is likely to result in eye-rolling at best and resentment at worst. So instead, the best way to come up with a resolution is to foster as much organic constructive communication as possible. The role of the mediator should be to lead these conversations and step in when or if it starts getting contentious to the point where it’s counterproductive.
When all else fails, try to find the human side – putting aside dollar signs and accusations; what are the dynamics of the relationship leading to the conflict? If you can figure that out, you’re on the right track toward a resolution.
How should you resolve conflict when mediating a conversation?
Here’s a few pointers to get you started in the right direction:
- Identify the points of agreement and disagreement and create a plan of action items that can bring about improvement. Keep in mind that the plan needs to be executed on!
- When discussing the issue causing the conflict, communicate calmly, listening attentively, not just to the words, but the meaning behind what is being communicated
- Seek to understand and paraphrase what you are hearing to ensure that you do, in fact, understand what the other party is saying
- Use neutral terms and display open body language
- Demonstrate that you respect the other person’s point of view. You don’t have to agree but demonstrating that you can appreciate where they are coming from helps foster and improve the relationship.
How does conflict management benefit the organization over the long run?
You’ve successfully resolved a conflict – now what? Back to the daily routine, never to return to the scene of the crime?
Institutional memory is a funny thing. In some ways, it’s the sum of all of the interactions, good and bad, that form the identity and culture of an organization over time. Think of the times that you grew as a person, and you’ll find that many of those experiences took place during a time of conflict or hardship.
An organization grows similarly through conflict and adversity. If managed properly, conflict can be leveraged as a driving force for change and innovation. It can tear down walls that you didn’t know were there. It can be a source of strength and competitive advantage.
What tools can you use to improve your conflict management skills?
From a development perspective, managers and leaders should reflect on how they apply their emotional intelligence competencies in situations where they are managing conflict. Learning about their strengths in emotional intelligence can better equip them with dealing with conflict.
It’s also important to learn about intercultural differences that exist in your own team and understand how best to approach the interactions. By intercultural difference, I am not referring to a cultural or ethnic difference, instead I’m talking about seeking to understand why someone may think and behave the way they do.
Understanding this helps to manage the conflict in a positive fashion. To learn about mindset and behaviour differences, the manager/leader and their team can complete a Global DISC assessment.
Coaching for executives, leaders and managers is another tool to help with conflict management in the office. Executive coaching helps leaders take action towards achieving goals and become more self-reliant. Managers and leaders who have a coach work more easily and productively with their peers, bosses, and direct reports, and communicate more effectively at all levels.
As long as humans are working together in any setting, there will be conflicts. Unfortunately, many of us have been trained to avoid rather than deal with the issue head-on when it comes to managing conflict in the workplace. What we’ve seen is that failing to practice good conflict management can have significant adverse consequences, whereas building strong competencies around conflict management reduces risk and brings tangible benefits.
Being a leader in the workplace means taking on managing both an end deliverable and the people working towards it. A manager who produces excellent numbers but neglects the well-being of their team is on an unsustainable track.
We’ve come a long way in how we look at organizational behavior, from dated authoritarian models to ones that can make the best use of dynamic, diverse, and highly interactive networks. The most forward-thinking organizations recognize the importance of having effective conflict management practices in place.
How does yours measure up? Let me know in the comments!