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How to Handle Conflict

For many of us, every day is a struggle to avoid conflict. Yet avoidance is practically impossible since the core characteristics, ideas and beliefs of each individual often conflict with our own. Differences of opinion, competitive zeal, and misinterpretations, among other factors, can all generate ill feelings between co-workers within an organization. While we can’t avoid conflict, we can learn how to sidestep negative confrontations by becoming familiar with the types of conflicts that most commonly arise in the work place and by learning how to resolve them.

As a manager, you must approach every conflict as an opportunity to improve employee relationships, to lessen tension in the workplace, and to eliminate long-standing problems. Learn to treat conflict as a natural dynamic in employees relationships: it often proves useful by forcing employees to solve problems. Problem-solving results in effective communication.

Causes of Conflict: Conflict occurs when two or more individuals (or groups) within an organization need to solve a problem together. The problem could be minor such as organizing a weekly cleanup crew for the coffee break area, or major such as training employees on new and complex corporate procedures. Whatever the scenario, any situation can turn sour. The parties’ interests may clash, one party’s actions may insult the other party, or both parties could just have incompatible personalities.

  1. Conflicts of belief: People have different personal beliefs and any deviation from those beliefs is bound to cause problems. This type of conflict must not be allowed to erupt in an organization.
  2. Conflicts of attitudes: People have different values, goals and lifestyles, which may offend or annoy others.
  3. Conflicts resulting from inappropriate management behavior: Executives are not excluded from causing conflict. Many executives misuse their authority by insulting others. Managers who fail to support employees and follow through on promises and tasks encourage conflicts between individuals by not taking charge.

Conflict falls under two major headings: low cost conflict and high-cost conflict. Low cost conflict can be constructive. New ideas and improvements often arise out of low-cost conflict. For example, cleaning up the coffee area can easily be solved by organizing a schedule, which is a constructive solution.

Employees who are “set in their ways” may resent the new procedures because they have to re-learn part of their jobs over again from the beginning. Improper training can also push the situation into a high-cost conflict. Letting this type of conflict get out of hand could have a major impact on an organization. With the proper knowledge of how to handle conflicts, whether they are major or minor, you can stop a potentially devastating conflict dead in its tracks.

Identifying Conflict: There are generally three ways a manager is informed of conflict. The manager observes discontent brewing between two parties. If this is the case, document the incidents to use as evidence when confronting the involved parties. Do not use this as threatening material, only use it as reinforcement for yourself and so you will remember the particular situations that contributed to the conflict.

Another way the manager is alerted to conflict is when one or both of the conflicting parties approach the manager with complaints about the other. In this case, sit one or the both parties down to discuss the problem.

The third way a manager learns of conflict is when a third party points out the existing conflict between others. Before confronting the parties, observe them to make a personal assessment of the situation.

Watch for these common symptoms of conflict:

  • The employees member (or members) involved display no desire to communicate.
  • Bad tempers are evident.
  • Productivity is falling.
  • Morale is slipping.
  • One or more of those involved frequently calls in sick.
  • Accidents and errors become more frequent.
  • Disagreements become more pronounced (shouting, slamming doors, etc).

Once you have identified a conflict, you must plan a course of action. Decide whether the conflict is important enough to confront the conflicting parties. Make careful assessments of both the conflict and the conflict’s impact on the individuals and the organization. The said conflict could just be an intense brainstorming session (which you must not short circuit).

If you deem confrontation is necessary, however, confront the parties separately. Confront them in a neutral setting for a down-to-earth chat. If the conflict is in its early stages, resolution might be easily—and quickly—achieved now.

During the confrontation, the cause of the conflict must be determined. After the confrontation, the manager needs to reflect on the discussion and reach an objective solution for both parties to agree upon. There will be times when the parties will not agree: in this case, use your own judgment.

Your primary objective is to find a solution. The manager dips into his resources and either reduces or eliminates the conflict. To accomplish this you need to elicit enough information to understand each employees member’s opinion and to define the problem in mutual terms.

Once a solution is implemented, you must make regular checks on the parties to insure that their agreements are being kept. If the process is successful, both parties need to be attempting to work the situation out. If not, confrontation must occur again to determine the remaining causes of the conflict.

There is a fine line between conflict and disagreement. Disagreement involves a difference of opinion, belief, or idea. All disagreements involve some kind of conflict, yet every disagreement need not reach full-scale pandemonium. If both parties are mature and self-confident, any problem that arises must be solvable between them. If not, conflict is bound to arise—often over petty situations.

Five Methods of Handling Conflict:

  • Avoidance. Ironically, avoiding pending conflicts can sometimes squash a potential outburst. A sudden difference of opinion can immediately result in conflict. If you as a manager can justify its avoidance (on the basis that it is a conflict of belief, attitude or like) and change the subject before the situation gets out of hand, the situation may be perceived as unimportant and the parties will quite possibly forget the problem.
  • Accommodation. The manager combines the issues, and resolves the problem with the quickest solution. Differences are downplayed in order to reach an agreement.
  • Competition. The manager solves the problem by choosing the person most likely to achieve the best results (not necessarily the best idea) and works together to help that employee reach the set goal.
  • Compromise. The manager speaks to each employee about his or her feelings on the situation and then steers the negotiations in such a way that the employees compromise part of their own objectives in order to reach a satisfactory agreement.
  • Collaboration. The manager works along with the employees to find the best possible solution. The manager teaches the employees members to accept one another’s ideas and work together to achieve mutual benefits for each party. Trust is increased through the process because both parties are equally concerned with the outcome.

A successful confrontation can have many positive outcomes—both for the parties involved and for the organization. It can lead to a good solution to a problem; increased work productivity; a raised level of commitment to decisions by both parties; a willingness to take greater risks in the future; and a more open and trusting relationship between the parties.

Communicating with Employee’s: Developing candid, constructive methods of communication is the key to side-stepping negative confrontations. Learn how to communicate with employees and they will learn how to communicate with you. For example, the best way to handle conflict is often to shrug it off. If someone approaches you with venom in their fangs, be cool and calm. Speak your mind, get your ideas across, but don’t fall into their trap. When someone is angry, they’ll say almost anything to start an argument. By keeping a cool posterior and a calming tone, they will fret and fume over to the next cubicle.

Of course, it is not always that easy to steer clear of conflict. Many times when conflict occurs, it is usually the result of someone’s bruised ego. The issue may not even be important. However, when the issue is important to a employees member and reaching an agreement seems impossible, try waiting a few days for the situation to dim. If the anger is still present, encourage those involved to come to you. With your authority and objectivity, you will be able to guide them to a resolution.

Feedback is most effective when it is given in positive rather than negative terms. Feedback must also focus on some specific aspect of an individual’s behavior rather than his or her personality. In addition, employees benefit when feedback is given in both positive and negative situations; this gives them opportunities to assess their strengths as well as their weaknesses. If you only give feedback in negative situations, the employees may never gain the confidence to persevere.

Equally important, you need to express any concerns you have about a employees member’s performance directly to the person to whom it pertains. Do not expect employees members to confront one another about their differences if your own approach relies on using the office grapevine as a primary means of communicating.

Communication is a two-way process. If employees feel that their own perspectives are being considered, they will be more willing to accept a solution even when it is not in their favor. If you refuse to communicate openly and sincerely, your employees will never feel that that they can communicate with you.

Many conflicts are actually the end result of poor communication. Misunderstandings about goals and expectations can thrust two unassuming individuals into a never-ending whirlwind of senseless arguments. For example, two parties may be brainstorming for a solution to poor software design. Both parties may have different solutions to the problem. One party may have more at stake than the other, especially if he or she was directly involved in developing the package. When one party suggests overhauling the package, the other party may take immediate offense since he or she spent months developing the software. In any case, think before jumping to conclusions that may cause more problems.

It is best to be frank about your assumptions. Since this is often difficult, ask yourself if there are differing perceptions to the situation. You can clarify most misunderstandings by asking yourself these questions: What is each party’s goal? Is this a conflict between different goals? Between different approaches to the same goal? Between the different needs of two parties?

Conflicts are much easier to deal with when people know exactly what their goals are for themselves as well as for the group’s .Often a heated argument will occur between two parties indulging in a subjective battle—they do not realize that they are both striving for the same goal.

Responding To Conflict

  • Accept conflict as natural. Treat it as an opportunity to examine the issue in depth and to learn more about the underlying values and assumptions that are present. Accept the challenge to find imaginative and creative responses to conflicting ideas.
  • Bring hidden conflicts out in the open. If you think there is an underlying conflict that is causing problems in a group, bring it up at an appropriate time. If you see signs of unexpressed disagreement, ask those involved what they are feeling.
  • Don’t accuse group members. Laying blame on someone only makes you look bad. See their perspective: What are their values, assumptions and previous experiences?
  • Identify and focus on the central issues to the conflict. A group may be lost in confusion until someone focuses on the real issues and intended goals. If a meeting is getting nowhere, fast stop it in mid-motion and redefine the goals. Encourage employees members not to get off track. If other issues come up, write them down and address them later. Isolate conflict by pointing out the most basic point of contention. Focusing on this issue may have the short-range effect of escalation, but it is a necessary step when dealing with disagreement.
  • Don’t compromise too quickly. By compromising too quickly, adequate exploration of the problem and its potential solutions not accomplished. The ideal solution to a conflict is a creative one that finds a way to give everyone what they most need.

Understand and define exactly what you think and feel about an issue before choosing a final decision. Identify which areas you can compromise on or forget about. Don’t expect to find a flawless solution. And don’t get cornered into defending ideas for the sake of principle. On the other hand, don’t offer to compromise just to be a good sport. If you agree to a decision unwillingly (or allow someone else to do so), you will not really be committed to the solution.

Call time out: Calling time out is the best tool for constructive conflict resolution. It is important for people to express themselves during decisions, but sometimes the atmosphere gets so argumentative that people are no longer listening to one another. At this point, call a break, ask for a few minutes silence, suggest that people count to 10 before responding to the discussion and pick it up again at another time.

Schedule a special employees meeting, or even an all-day retreat, and use a “neutral facilitator” (either from inside or outside the group) to help you through a program for dealing with the conflict.

Where Do You Draw The Line?

Conflict often arises when one individual pushes a set of ideals onto another individual who disagrees with those ideals. It is fine for employees to have personal conversations and relationships with co-workers, but a discussion must never turn into a personal debate. As adults, our lives are molded by our individual value systems and we often resent those who deviate too drastically from them. Our friends, spouses, careers and lifestyles often reflect our values and beliefs, so it is no surprise that conflict arises with most anyone we meet; after all practically everyone has a different way of conducting his or her life.

Personal issues-such as opinions, point of view and one’s own value system and goals must not produce interpersonal or organizational crises. Employees within an organization need to realize that professional opinions are not the same as personal opinions and that one’s own beliefs must not intrude into the work place.

Personal opinions must remain personal. Getting too personal with co-workers will make your employees’s work life more emotional—something you want employees to avoid.

Don’t expect employees to shroud themselves completely from their co-workers. It is healthy for employees to be friendly with their co-workers. But, employees need to be aware that their confidants may reveal their deepest secrets. Employee’s members must never dip into the “office wishing well” where everyone’s deepest desires sit ready to be retold in different renditions, according to the personal objectives of various storytellers. Here are five tips for defusing conflict:

  1. Establish an employee assistance program where employees members can go to solve problems.
  2. Help your employees recognize that they share a common goal with other employees: To make the organization successful! This is their primary goal. If they keep this goal in sight any other issues must remain minimal or be perceived as less important.
  3. Teach employees that when working, their productivity and contribution to the organization is more important than their personal status.
  4. Instill openness between co-workers without asking them to confide too much. Distribute tips for handling conflict and organize a workshop on conflict resolution.

Andrew E. Schwartz, CEO, A.E. Schwartz & Associates of Boston, MA a comprehensive management training and professional development organization offering over 40 skills specific programs and practical solutions to today's business challenges.

Copyright, AE Schwartz & Associates. All rights reserved.
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