Peace is not absence of conflict, it is the ability to handle conflict by peaceful means. ~ Ronald Reagan
You come into work feeling rested and ready to hit it hard when lo and behold, you encounter one of every manager’s worst nightmares: infighting in your department. Or perhaps one of your employees is having major issues with someone from a different department. Heck, maybe you come in and learn there is a problem and it involves you!
Unfortunately, dealing with conflict is a pretty common occurrence. According to research from OPP in conjunction with the Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development, 85% of employees have to deal with conflict in the office at some point (I’m surprised it’s not 100%!). Although many managers prefer a “duck and run” approach, not managing conflict can severely cripple, if not erase, any respect your employees have for you as their leader.
Understand that true conflict rarely goes away. Instead, left on its own, issues can escalate and people start taking sides. Even worse? Major conflict can lower morale, decrease productivity, and create a whole host of other issues that can spread throughout the entire organization.
The Good News.
Fortunately, it isn’t usually necessary to take drastic measures in order to resolve conflicts. Most of the time, people are able to apply the “work it out among yourselves” strategies we all learned as kids when our parents and teachers got tired of intervening in every petty squabble. This approach is ideal for dealing with minor conflicts that are in still in the early stages—the “Stage 1: Mild annoyance” stuff I discussed in my previous post in this series.
In these cases, your participation is mostly as an observer (and possibly as a mediator, if the parties involved in the conflict aren’t able to work things out easily, for example, and it’s necessary to bring them together in a meeting). For the most part, at this level you usually don’t have to do more than monitor the situation informally and let your employees resolve things themselves.
Sometimes, though, employees aren’t able to work things out on their own (especially when personality differences are a factor). In those cases, a full-blown intervention may be required—and you have to take an active role in resolving the problem. Major conflicts that erupt in the workplace are usually too big and too complex for casual “work it out among yourselves” strategies to succeed and require a more formal, methodical approach.
Whether you’re coaching two opposing parties or you’re embroiled in the conflict, this eight step process lays out a framework for how to resolve even the toughest disagreements.
Step 1: Plan a conversation with the other person
- From the beginning, it’s important to understand that the other person may not be aware that his or her behavior is bothering you. (So try to keep an open mind and don’t go into this process assuming the worst!)
- Schedule a meeting for a time and place that will be free of interruptions.
Step 2: Focus on specific facts, not on vague points or on personalities
- During your meeting, describe specific instances (don’t generalize) when you felt slighted by the other person.
- Speak from your perspective and how you feel.
- Refrain from “when you do X,” opting instead with “when X happens I feel.” (Remember, it’s hard for someone to argue with how you feel.)
Step 3: Listen carefully
- Pay close attention and listen to what the other person is saying (instead of getting ready to react to it).
- Don’t interrupt.
- After the other person finishes speaking, restate what he or she said to make sure you understand it.
- Ask questions to clarify your understanding.
Step 4: Identify points of agreement and disagreement
- Summarize the areas of agreement.
- Talk about where you disagree and reconfirm the other’s person’s perspective.
- Ask the other person if he or she agrees with your assessment.
- Modify your assessment until both of you agree on what the areas of conflict are.
Step 5: Prioritize the areas of conflict
- Discuss which area of conflict each of you thinks is most important to resolve.
- Clarify why it’s important for both of you to resolve this conflict (perhaps it’s affecting your staff or co-workers, your bosses have gotten wind of your inability to work together, etc.).
- Identify the areas that are of greatest concern to the company and its mission.
Step 6: Develop a plan to work on each area of conflict
- Start with the most important area of conflict (perhaps agree that you’ll be civil to one another in meetings vs. clearly butting heads, maybe agree to stop undercutting each other’s suggestions, etc.)
- Focus on the future – clarify again how resolving the conflict will help the company and your respective careers.
- Talk about options that each of you could take instead that will feel less harsh to the other person.
- Think in terms of “us” working together so we both win.
- Set up future meetings to continue your discussions.
Step 7: Follow through on your plan
- Stick with the discussions until you’ve worked through each area of conflict.
- Maintain a collaborative, “let’s work out a solution together” attitude.
Step 8: Build on your success
- Look for opportunities to point out progress.
- Compliment the other person’s insights and achievements.
- Congratulate each other when you make progress, even if it’s just a small step.
Remember that your hard work will pay off when scheduled discussions eventually give way to ongoing, friendly communication.
Note that at any point in this process, you should ask for outside help if you need it. It’s possible that you and the other party may find yourselves at an impasse—perhaps because the conflict is particularly contentious, or because you just don’t know how to proceed. If that happens, bring in a third party to moderate or facilitate as needed. Sometimes you just need a little help to keep things moving forward in a productive manner!
It’s also important to note that conflicts surrounding management situations should never be treated as disciplinary hearings, as if managers are inherently right and employees are inherently wrong. This approach is a reliable way to lose good employees. If a manager and employee who are having a conflict cannot come to a resolution, place the employee under the supervision of another manager.
You can do this.
Yes, conflict in the workplace is a big deal—certainly something important enough to warrant your immediate attention (and perhaps your intervention as well). But don’t panic: even though a conflict in the workplace is problematic, its existence doesn’t spell the end of the world! As I’ve highlighted in this two-part series, conflicts come in all shapes and sizes, and when the parties involved have the right tools (and the right attitudes), they can almost always be resolved satisfactorily. So stop ignoring and avoiding your workplace conflicts: get in there and fix them!