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Managing Conflict in the Workplace

Dealing with and resolving conflict can be a significant source of stress in the workplace.  You know you have an issue if you have several frustrating people situations you haven’t dealt with.  Or, if you often find yourself thinking of things you wish you had or had not said.  These things usually do not get better with time!  They just continue creating stress while they rob you of your energy.  Managing conflict in the workplace is a vital leadership skill, yet we see top leaders in all kinds of organizations who dodge conflict. They avoid taking action on important issues again and again, thus their effectiveness and confidence as leaders diminishes each time.

Some people are the “simmer and explode” types when it comes to conflict.  They keep quiet on small issues until the pressure builds and then they blow up and cause damage (potentially irreparable).  Either way, whether you undershoot or overshoot when it comes to conflict – know that that your own “conflict behavior” is at play.

Why do so many of us avoid conflict?

1.      We lack understanding of the nature of conflict and its benefits.

2.      We don’t want to disappoint/anger/hurt another person.

3.      We lack confidence in our ability to successfully handle conflict.

4.      We believe that the political nature of organizations makes it dangerous.

Let’s explore each of these in more detail:

1.  “What’s Good About Conflict?”

M. Scott Peck, author of The Road Less Traveled, talks about how conflict is essential in community.  In fact, he says, for any group to go past the “polite” stage, they must enter into “chaos.”  This chaos, or conflict, is the true grit in human relationships.  It’s where people make known who they are and what their needs are (it’s no coincidence that people who fear conflict are often the same ones who aren’t skilled at getting their needs met).  A world without conflict is a veneer world without possibility for depth.  So, conflict isn’t the enemy. Begin to notice it and value it.  Changing your attitude about it will help set the ideal stage to use effective conflict management skills.

2.  “I Don’t Want to Create an Enemy”

We worry that if we confront an issue, people won’t be happy about it.   If you address the issue with respect and clarity – you’ve done well.  You cannot control and are not responsible for another person’s reaction.  (Caution: this is not license to vent anything on anyone) Obviously, the more skilled we are at handling conflict the better, but at some point you still have to realize the other person may not be pleased.   Paying attention to how we’re perceived is good.  Making our needs known is also good.  The trick is to do both of these well; requesting what we need in a respectful, balanced way.

3.  “I’m Not Sure How to Deal With It.”

Your mindset when you enter into conflict is crucial.  If you go in angry, convinced you’ve been wronged and are in “attack” mode, you will not be effective.  Even if it means waiting an hour or a day to cool down, do it.  Then go in with questions, to gain information about why or how something happened.  Keep your tone neutral as much as possible.  Once you have more information, you can make a request that is relevant.  Most people don’t listen enough in the conflict process.  The old adage “there are two sides to every story” has never been truer than in conflict.

Your job is to find out what is going on in the other person’s head (you may not agree with it but knowing it will be illuminating).  Then you can decide what action, if any, to take.  Asking for feedback means you are checking in on where the other person is after the conversation.  This is a way to end the conversation with you having a sense of how they’ve reacted, how they are feeling and where you both stand.  Depending on the issue, it could be as simple as: “Do you understand where I’m coming from” or “Does this make sense to you?” or, if it’s more emotionally charged ask, “Are we OK?”  In the end, you may decide to respectfully disagree.

Here are four tips to managing conflict effectively:

  • Be calm, objective and self-aware (breathe!)
  • Practice inquiry (asking questions with an open mind and allowing that you may not be right)
  • State your request (clearly, respectfully)
  • Ask for feedback

4.  “With the Politics Here, I Don’t Want to Rock the Boat.”

One sure way to annoy is to not deal with issues that need to be dealt with.  Another way is to be overzealous and dominating in dealing with conflict.  Politics is a reality in every organization.  Highly political environments require more political saavy in dealing with people, more mastery of these skills.  In fact, politicians and leaders learn how to get things done, without escalating tension and conflict to the point where they alienate others.  They become masters at building relationships.  You may be interested in reading High Performance Executives – 12 Competencies.

There are tools that can help you in resolving conflict in the workplace, understand your own approach to conflict, depersonalize it and resolve issues. The DISC Behavioral Assessment is an excellent tool for understanding your own conflict style and identifying that of others. The Workplace Motivation Report also helps identify how a difference in values/motivators can create conflict.

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