Leaders frequently face situations where conflict arises in the workplace and they’re called upon to resolve the situation. Although conflict is not generally regarded as a positive experience it actually can be a key opportunity to create change that will reduce friction in the workplace. We can begin to defuse conflict by understanding what it is and implementing some practical strategies to manage it. Conflict is a natural part of the workplace experience; people do not see eye to eye on everything and often dig in and defend their positions. Conflict arises when individuals do not see the world in the same way. The trap we fall into is assuming that conflict is a battle that must be won at all costs rather than viewing the situation as an opportunity to move in a more effective direction. Managers can benefit greatly by understanding that conflict is something that does not go away unless it is resolved. Conflict signals an issue that needs to be addressed. Once we understand that conflict is telling us that there is something that needs attention in our organization we can begin to implement a strategy to fix it.
The four basic components of resolving a conflict are naming the issue, understanding each person’s point of view, brainstorming possible solutions together and selecting a solution that the parties agree on. These four steps allow us to figure out what is going on and work together to arrive at a mutually beneficial resolution. Notice that each step leads into the next with each piece increasing understanding between the parties in order to arrive at a win/win situation. Companies frequently find that it is the process of resolving the conflict that is most important for staff to learn and practice. Let us look at an example of how this process works in the real world. The names have been changed to protect anonymity. Tom is a manager at a dynamic firm who is constantly clashing with one of his staff, Tina, a bright person who often has ideas that differ from Tom’s. Tom has tried everything he knows to smooth things out but the two still spar frequently. This chronic pattern has led to disciplinary action by Tom and complaints to human resources by Tina. Both parties are productive employees who love the company and their jobs but do not know how to move beyond all this conflict.
Tom realizes that in order to build an effective team he has to have Tina on board but he doesn’t know how to do it. He knows that by using Tina’s skills and energy he will look better and the company will benefit. But how to do it? Following our common-sense approach Tom asks Tina to sit down and talk. It’s important to mention first that managers benefit greatly by putting in place some key elements that lead to successful conversations such as meeting at a mutually convenient time, no distractions or interruptions allowed, no agendas, a calm environment and unrestricted time to talk. When we set up an environment conducive to relaxed conversation we create a greater likelihood of success. A small investment in time up front to talk in depth can more than make up for the countless lost hours and cost devoted to ongoing conflict. They begin the conversation and together they discover that one issue at hand is that Tina prefers to work with less supervision. They agree that they will talk about that one issue and name it, “Tina working with less supervision.”
The next thing they do is that each talks about what he or she thinks about Tina working with less supervision and, in the process, they begin to understand each other’s point of view. After talking a while, they brainstorm together on possible ways to accommodate the newly identified need and come up with several viable possibilities. Their final step is to agree on the possibility that makes the most sense to both of them. They carefully follow each step and do not proceed to the next unless they both agree it is completed. In this way, they develop a systematic process of communication that allows issues to come out in a respectful environment. Over time and through practice Tom and Tina learn how to bring up any issue that is unresolved and work together to find a mutually beneficial solution following the same basic four step process.
The benefit of learning how to resolve conflicts in a methodical and systematic way is that it takes the guesswork out of fixing situations. When we work on understanding other points of view and collaborating on solutions we move in the direction of finding solutions that work for everyone. Sure it takes some work up front but the payoff is dramatic in the long run. The business world presents us enough challenges without having to deal with chronic conflict. By understanding what conflict is and following some basic strategies we can build a workplace that thrives on collaboration and effective conflict resolution.