Where there are people, there is the potential for conflict. And it doesn't take an HR expert to realize that unresolved conflict in the workplace can be costly—in terms of low morale and productivity, litigation, sabotage, or even violence—which is why organizations increasingly view conflict resolution skills as a core competency for many employees.
With the shift from traditional reporting structures to cross-functional (or cross-dysfunctional) teams, the possibility of conflict is heightened—and greater confusion about roles and responsibilities means resolving conflict is trickier than ever. According to Kathy Stewart, vice president of client services for Chorda (www.chorda.com), which partners with organizations to design conflict management systems, many employees are choosing to ignore conflict rather than resolve it. With increased uncertainty about roles, reporting structures, and power differentials, they fear they could get hurt politically if they make a wrong move.
But, handled correctly, conflict isn't necessarily negative. It can be an opportunity to solve problems. There are four main ways, Stewart says, that people deal with conflict:
Avoidance. Or just hoping the situation will go away.
Higher authority. Allowing a third party, such as a supervisor or an HR person, to make a decision for the parties. Arbitration and litigation are also higher-authority processes.
Power play. Forcing a particular resolution upon the other party—for instance, sit-ins, strikes, and sabotage.
Collaboration. This process occurs through individual initiative, conversation, negotiation, or mediation.
"The preferred path, or the least costly route for problem-solving, is to use collaboration first, with higher authority as a backup," notes Stewart, who offers the following tips for collaborative resolution.
Resolve issues early. Deal with problems as they arise rather than allowing them to escalate.
Listen on a deeper level. Try to understand the other person's position before you speak—and listen to the underlying interests that motivate that position. Let's say somebody asks you for a raise. Rather than responding, "No, we don't have the budget for it," creatively explore all options with that person. Perhaps what the person really desires is recognition, which could be addressed in other ways.
Be conversational, not confrontational. If you're having problems with someone, approach that person in a nonconfrontational way. It is often helpful to disclose something about yourself so that your attempt is perceived as less a confrontation than a conversation. (For example: "I wonder if you can help me better understand how you see our various roles and responsibilities.") That way, you're inviting the other person around to your side of the table to look at the problem together.
Build a Kinder Workplace
There are other ways to reframe how you think about conflict. Tom Terez, founder of BetterWorkplaceNow.com and author of 22 Keys to Creating a Meaningful Workplace, would like to see people focus on conflict prevention. "We need to think about how we can build the bonds of our relationships such that we minimize conflict and also so that when conflict does occur, we are equipped to deal with it," says Terez, who offers this advice:
Pay attention to those first 30 seconds. How you initiate a conversation is critical. If the first minute is negative, the rest of the conversation will be too. Avoid sounding skeptical, antagonistic, or disrespectful. Also, say what you mean instead of playing games. Likewise, if someone else is the initiator, it's critical that you're conscious of how you respond to that "bid" to engage. You should turn toward rather than away from the person.
Realize that nobody's perfect. You can have all the conflict resolution skills in the world, but some people are hard to get along with. BetterWorkplaceNow.com offers advice for dealing with limelight hogs, pessimists, control freaks, and other trying types, in its "Difficult Dozen Help Zone." But a kinder workplace isn't built in a day. You have to think long-term and be willing, as Terez says, to "do the heavy lifting of building your relationships."
Katheryn Potterf is a staff writer for Oracle Publishing.