In the “perfect” workplace everyone gets along. There are no disputes regarding titles, compensation, time schedules, assignments, or environmental conditions. There are no personality conflicts and there is no sexual harassment. Each worker takes full responsibility for his or her actions and never attempts to place blame on another person or an external influence. Do you recognize this place?
Sadly, for most of us, this “perfect” workplace does not exist. Instead, our workplaces hold women and men who are working harder and longer, with limited resources. Isolated from the support of the traditional extended family, workers are routinely juggling home and work responsibilities. It is understandable that many of us feel like we are living in conflict breeding grounds.
My twenty years as a mediator have taught me that most conflict is driven by emotion, not logic. And, most financial battles are not really about the money. In fact, most conflicts start with someone feeling de-valued, dismissed or disrespected. Many of the Madoff victims say that the worst part of his crime is not the actual lose of their resources but the emotions – feelings duped, betrayed, humiliated, and insulted – that they have been left with.
We typically don’t get the whole story behind the horrendous acts of workplace violence that frequently appear on the nightly news. These disasters start out like many of our workplace disputes and we can learn from them. We do know that typically the men who commit these crimes often have histories of feeling alienated and outcast. Often they see themselves as the victims, under attack and powerless. This victim stance promotes a lack of responsibility. After all, as an innocent, the shocking results of their crimes are not their faults. The true villain is the company, the unfair policy, and/or those they believe have mistreated them. The crisis becomes ignited when the outraged “victim” shifts into “hero” mode in an effort to protect, defend, and even the score.
Business and workplace relationships are fluid, ever changing, on-going, and connected to basic survival. And, in these chaotic times, especially, disagreement and stress are almost inevitable. However, workplace disharmony doesn’t have to be destructive. In fact you can turn discord into an opportunity for enhanced connection and productivity.
Business and workplace conflicts need to be handled delicately. Often, final resolution is an unrealistic expectation. However, the more you know about the nature of conflict, the better you will be able to manage your conflicts and create positive results.
How do you define conflict? Sometimes conflict is seen as a negative struggle. And, conflict can indeed be destructive when mean-spirited behaviors, aimed at fulfilling individual agendas or discrediting the other party, who is now designated as “the enemy,” are used. However, people who are committed to working together can usually find ways to avoid the destructive aspects of conflict. And, conflicts can be productive when they are viewed as opportunities for expanded perspectives and options.
Here are my top 9 tips for positive conflict management in your workplace:
o Approach every conflict as an opportunity to improve relationships, lessen tension and eliminate long-standing problems. Avoid taking things personally. Instead, treat your conflicts as natural parts of a relationship.
o Listen without judgment, listen to the other side, and get the whole story. Many times people simply want someone to hear what they have to say. Remember, in order to effectively listen you will need to be comfortable with venting and strong emotions. Cultivate the active listening skills of empathizing, paraphrasing, reframing, summarizing and picking-up on non-verbal clues.
o Communicate clearly. Say what you mean, but say it positively. Words and tone can convey powerful positive and negative images. Saying “How can I help you?’ rather than “What do you want?” may be all it takes to stop a conflict from escalating. Realize that the way something is said is at least as important as what is said. Ask open-ended questions (how, what, when, where, who?) to probe for underlying interests.
o Keep your cool. Uncontrolled emotions can harm your image, no matter how much you are provoked.
o Learn to recognize and be conscious of the signs of escalating conflict, within yourself and others. When an argument escalates so that people are no longer listening to each other, call a time-out. And, then gauge whether a few minutes, a few hours, or a few days will be the best prescription.
o Ask for a do-over. When stories are inconsistent and/or the cause of the conflict cannot be determined, at the appropriate time, suggest wiping the slate clean and starting anew, by putting the incident in the past.
o Focus on solving problems, not placing blame. Ask what can be done to avoid a recurrence of the situation. Who needs to be involved to solve the problem? What are the obstacles to resolution?”
o Be proactive, not reactive. Address conflict in a timely way, before it becomes systemic. Denying that conflict exists or failing to respond to it promptly can be costly. Unresolved issues tend to fester and grow out of proportion. When a conflict cannot be immediately addressed, set a time and place for the meeting.
o Learn from your conflicts. The chance to learn is almost always contained within a disagreement.