How to Manage Workplace Conflict

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How to Manage Workplace Conflict

by: Howard M. Guttman

Executive Edge

May 01, 2011

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Understand Where Conflict Begins

Conflict occurs when the needs and desires of two or more parties are incompatible. When those parties strive for the same thing—whether it is money, materials, space, time or any other resource—they are in conflict. The roots of conflict are discussed by Howard M. Guttman in When Goliaths Clash.

In business, people with different cultural backgrounds, values, beliefs and psychological and emotional needs are forced to work together for eight or more hours a day, year after year, to achieve a set of objectives. It is inconceivable that all parties will consistently agree on all matters.

Business conflict can be found throughout organizations regardless of function or level in the corporate hierarchy. As a consequence, executives must be adept at managing conflict throughout their organizations.

There are two main sources of conflict among people in both personal and business relationships: individual differences and stylistic clashes.

Individual differences. When we interact with people whose wants, needs, values, beliefs, assumptions and interpretations differ from our own, we might find ourselves in conflict with them. But that does not mean we have to butt heads with them. People can have different opinions without taking those differences personally. One of the keys to successfully managing conflict is learning to depersonalize it, or to simply view it as a business situation to be handled.

Stylistic clashes. In a business context, style means the ways each individual approaches interpersonal communication. Effective communication is critical for resolving differences, and each of us needs to be aware of how we communicate. What is our primary style? Do we use it some, all or most of the time? Do we vary our style depending on the situation, the person we are communicating with or the issue that is on the table? It is helpful to think about communication methods in three broad styles: nonassertive, assertive and aggressive.

The conditions under which we work can be a significant conflict producer. Hierarchical structure, policies and procedures, performance reviews, reward systems, organizational culture, and even physical plant conditions can turn the mildest-mannered employee into a raging bull.

Downsizing, rightsizing, restructuring, re-engineering and de-layering produce a constant churn that increases the potential for disagreement. Executives find themselves competing for resources, clarifying roles and procedures, setting standards, and establishing goals and priorities.

Manifest conflict is in-your-face disagreement. It occurs when executives square off at a committee meeting or when someone comes into your office complaining loudly about next year’s budget.

Latent conflict is submerged disagreement. It occurs when people sit quietly through meetings plotting ways to sabotage their teammates when they walk out of the room. It exhibits itself indirectly, through lack of cooperation between departments or procrastination on project deadlines.

Strategic conflict—disagreement at the top over the future of direction of the organization—is conflict at its deadliest and is the hardest type of conflict to resolve.

Resolve Conflicts Constructively

The most effective solution to conflict is to take a rational, problem-centered approach, according to William A. Salmon and Rosemary T. Salmon, authors of The Mid-Career Tune-Up. Here’s what they suggest:

The first step is to analyze the situation. Start by describing the conflict: Who is having the problem? What triggered the conflict? Is it getting worse?

Next, review the impact the conflict is having on the achievement of work goals. Is time being wasted working around the problem? Is the conflict leading to increased costs?
Identify any broader impact of the conflict. Is the conflict affecting the morale of the work group? Is the conflict affecting the level of service being provided to customers?

Finally, describe the benefits of resolving the conflict in terms of productivity, efficiency, time and cost savings, and any other relevant factors. Understanding the impact of the conflict will help you determine which approach should be adopted in resolving the conflict.

You have three options, or approaches, for resolving a conflict: assertive, cooperative, or collaborative.

The Assertive Approach. Decide that you have a problem that must be resolved. Schedule a face-to-face meeting with the person with whom you’re having the conflict. To prepare you should:

1. Determine the exact words you want to say to start the meeting. The goal is to keep the conversation focused on the issue and its impact. Be sure to cover all the key points you want to make.

2. Be prepared to use “I” statements to send a clear message that this is having an impact on you. Example: “I’m sure there’s an explanation for these missed deadlines, but I need to know how to prevent further delays.”

3. When you are ready to turn the conversation over to the next person, ask a nonthreatening question that invites participation. Example: “How do you think we can resolve this issue?”

Not everybody will appreciate such a straight-on approach. But you will establish a reputation as someone who confronts important issues honestly and directly.

The Cooperative Approach. The second option is to passively accept the situation. One reason to do this may be that the issue is not sufficiently important to you to dedicate time and effort toward a resolution. Or you may decide that this is not a battle that you want to fight at this time.

State your position and ensure that the other person agrees with your assessment. Example: “I know that you and I need to reach an agreement on how to handle this backlog of requisitions, but it’s not a real priority for me right now. Do you mind if we put it off for a few weeks?”

The Collaborative Approach. In this option, the problem needs to be addressed, but you use a combination of the assertive and cooperative approaches. Be firm about certain issues involved, but willing to compromise on others. 

The Manager’s Role in Resolving Conflict

Kirk Blackard and James W. Gibson examine conflict management in Capitalizing on Conflict and answer the question “When should management intervene?”

Although not all conflict needs to be brought to the surface, much should. Often, what is required is that management needs to provide a safe opportunity to talk about concerns. This can include maintaining frequent contact with subordinates, having an open-door policy and managing by walking around.

Once conflict has surfaced, you as a manager must make a decision. Your response to conflict among employees and between employees and management should differ.

In employee-employee conflict, neither the company nor its management is involved. Instead, the conflict is between co-workers or workers who aren’t in a supervisory relationship. The conflict may be personal or work-related. Before you intervene as a manager, you must weigh the costs and risks. Employees often do better if they solve their own problems, and intervention takes time and money. You should stay out of most purely personal conflicts, but you may need to intervene when the dispute is job-related.

If you as a manager do intervene, it is usually most effective to coach the parties on an appropriate solution rather than imposing one. Only after it becomes apparent that the parties cannot resolve the conflict should managers impose a solution.

If the conflict is between an employee and management, different rules apply. Its basis is in actions and positions taken by management against employees or by employees against management. Your role in this type of dispute is to represent the best interests of the organization, and all its workers, regardless of whether its actions will perpetu- ate or escalate conflict in the short term.

For example, you may elect to fire a worker who keeps violating company policies, even if that will almost certainly escalate the conflict. Management’s role includes playing investigator, decision-maker, implementer and advocate for the company.

Adopt Techniques for Resolving Conflict

In Executive Presence, Harrison Monarth offers that managers and professionals striving to bolster their executive presence can and should adopt the following techniques for resolving conflict—not so much to win as to navigate conflict situations toward outcomes that include strengthened relation- ships, a greater sense of teamwork and a mutual resolve to take the organization forward:

1. Use active listening. Hearing and understanding the logic and reasoning of both sides is critical to the creation of a mutually satisfying resolution.

2. Separate the positions from the issues. Begin with the issue and then view the positions in that context.

3. Understand and validate. As an arbitrating manager, it is critical that you not only seek to understand both positions in a conflict but also validate each party’s claim to what he or she believes is right.

4. Empathize. The power of empathy in conflict resolution cannot be overstated.

5. Implement boundaries and expectations. Because you are a manager, people are looking to you to clarify boundaries and expectations for behavior and outcomes.

6. Be tactful. If you remain sensitive to their feelings, they’ll remain open to your input.

7. Explore the issues and alternatives. If you can get them to talk about an alternative, you’re on the way to getting them to accept one.

8. Use “I” statements. If you say, “I was angry when you said that about me,” you’ll be greeted with more openness than if you said, “What you said about me was wrong.”

9. The power of stroking. If you can find something positive to say about the other person in the heat of a dispute, that person will be more open to hearing what you have to say about the issue at hand.

10. Attack the issues, not the person. As an arbitrating manager, listen for anything that is personal in nature and bring the conversation back to the issue as quickly as possible.

Keep Your Emotions in Check

Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler share valuable advice on how to talk about sensitive issues in Crucial Conversations.

The more important the discussion, the less likely we are to be on our best behavior. More specifically, we advocate or express our views quite poorly. There are skills that can help us state our opinions when we believe so strongly in something that we risk shutting others down rather than opening them up to our ideas.

The best at dialogue speak their minds completely and do it in a way that makes it safe for others to hear what they have to say and respond to it as well. They are totally frank and completely respectful.

In order to speak honestly when honesty could easily offend others, you have to find a way to maintain safety. Patterson, Grenny, McMillan and Switzler suggest you can speak the unspeakable and still maintain respect by carefully blending three ingredients: confidence, humility and skill.

Confidence. Have the confidence to say what needs to be said to the person who needs to hear it. Be confident that you can speak openly without brutalizing others or causing undue offense.

Humility. Be humble enough to realize you don’t have a monopoly on the truth. Realize that others have valuable input.

Skill. Learn to share delicate information willingly in a way that people can be grateful for your honesty.

There are five tools presented in Crucial Conversations that can help you talk about even the most sensitive topics, identified as STATE your path:

Share your facts. Start with the least controversial, most persuasive elements of your path to action.

Tell your story. Explain what you’re beginning to conclude.

Ask for others’ paths. Encourage others to share both their facts and their stories.

Talk tentatively. State your story as a story –– don’t disguise it as a fact.

Encourage testing. Make it safe for others to express differing or even opposing views.

Catch yourself before you launch into a monologue. Realize that if you’re starting to feel indignant or if you can’t figure out why others don’t buy in, you need to recognize that you’re starting to enter dangerous territory. Back off your harsh and conclusive language, not your belief. Hold on to your belief; merely soften your approach.

About Business Conflict

Insight into workplace conflict is found in this quote from Dale Carnegie Training’s The 5 Essential People Skills, in the chapter devoted to “Assertive Conflict Resolution”:


“One of the hard things about business conflict is the fact that it quickly becomes totally unsentimental. When money and workplace issues are involved, it’s amazing how quickly everything else burns away. All the lunches, the company retreats and the softball games mean nothing when the pedal meets the metal in a corporate setting.

“Ironically, this is something that makes business conflicts easier to handle than serious arguments between spouses, family members, or close friends. In those conflicts, there really are deep emotional issues that can make a clear resolution very difficult to come by. In business arguments, you may be shocked to realize how little personal feelings mean when push comes to shove.”

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