Workplace Conflicts

I was talking to my friend yesterday. We went to school together and have known each other for most of our lives. While we discussed silly fights in high school, now we discussed office stories, which by the way was nothing too different from high school drama. We talked about the major conflicts we had faced till date in our professional lives. We realized conflicts at work are common place, irrespective of the size of the organization, the role we play or the industry we work for.

Have you ever had a disagreement with a co-worker? You probably have at one time or another. Workplace conflicts are very common; there are very few offices where all the employees get along. Because of this, conflict resolution is a necessary component of the workplace, and those in a leadership position must be skilled in conflict resolution techniques.

I have had my share of conflicts too. Some have been absolutely amazingly resolved by my superiors that I ended up staying in that company long after I stopped enjoying the work I do. I stayed for my manager who was and is one of the best guys I have worked under. And I have also quit and walked out of a position where I adored and was completely invested in my work, because the working environment was all about conflicts.

When conflicts go unaddressed, they can have a negative impact on productivity and teamwork. Using conflict resolution strategies in the workplace will help maintain a healthy work environment. Conflict resolution requires specific leadership skills, problem-solving abilities and decision-making skills.

There are two views on conflicts or the so called differences in opinion between people. The traditional view says “conflicts are bad and should be totally discouraged”, and the new modern view says” conflicts can be constructive and good and different ways of thinking should be encouraged to get multiple ideas and solutions to problems in hand”. 

Let us approach conflict management with the idea that conflicts can be good for the team. So for effective conflict management, there is a need for creating a right atmosphere which empowers people to think originally and encourages them to put forth their suggestions and opinions without fear. And the members are encouraged to resolve conflicts among themselves with a very open and collaborative mind. People need to rise above their personal emotions while resolving conflicts and they need to think about the final goals of the project or work in hand. A manager should intervene in resolving a conflict when the involved team members will not be able to resolve on their own.

Some of the sources of conflict include disagreements on schedules, cost, priorities, technical opinions, resources, administrative procedures and personality. Personality related conflicts should completely be discouraged. Expectations may not have been set, context may not have been transferred, intentions and actions may have been misinterpreted. Keeping this idea at the core of your belief set when handling conflict can show that conflict is not inherently bad – it helps us unearth the inefficiencies within our process and teams, and handling it responsibly offers insights into process, culture, and team dynamic improvements.

Conflict management skill is a must for a team leader. Here are a few techniques that will help you resolve issues at your workplace.

  1. Listen, then speak: Just listening to an employee’s issue is the first and most important step in resolving conflict. You should simply listen to all parties involved to completely understand the nature of conflict and then start troubleshooting solutions.
  2. Gather the group: You’ll need to arrange a meeting with all involved parties to discuss the issue. Give everyone a chance to speak; this is a good opportunity to hear all sides and gain a full understanding of the conflict. Having a group meeting may also expedite a resolution that will satisfy everyone.
  3. Be impartial: Don’t take sides! In a leadership position, you shouldn’t display any sort of opinion that favors one person over another. If you are partial towards one person, try to access the situation from all sides to come up with a fair and reasonable solution.
  4. Do not postpone: Address the conflict immediately. Otherwise, the situation could escalate and could affect employee performance. Just make sure not to address the situation too quickly or without careful consideration, as your decision will directly affect the demeanor and performance of your staff.
  5. Promote teamwork: Remind your staff of successful projects that required teamwork to complete. This is one of the most effective conflict resolution techniques and will really make the employees think about the importance of working in a team.
  6. Broadcast praise: the power of encouragement and motivation can be multiplied when it is spread to recognize those who are modeling the teamwork and cooperation that is desired within any conflict. 
  7. It’s not about winning or being right: The only victory when it comes to dealing with conflict at work is a mutual one, that results in de-escalation, new common ground, and resolved conflict. Viewing the person (or team) on the other side of a conflict as your opponent will doom both parties to remain adversaries, and undermines the following conflict resolution techniques that increase the possibility of a mutually beneficial outcome.
  8. Don’t Look For A Person To Blame – Look For A Root Cause: Concentrating on an individual’s mistake is possible without going as far as to place blame, and you can do so by looking at the point in the process where this mistake was made. Did this individual have the right information to do their job correctly? Did the checks and balances in your process act as they typically should? Was there some sort of loss of context when information changed hands? Focusing on the process instead of chewing someone out helps prevent mistakes in future, and can leave your team confident that you have their back when things go awry. After all, everyone makes mistakes – even Project Managers.
  9. Legitimize & Echo Their Feelings Back To Them: When assessing how to handle conflict with a coworker, finding a source of an individual’s frustration and recognizing it aloud to them validates what they’re feeling. It shows that not only are you willing to listen, but that you’re a good listener. As communication is at the heart of every successful conflict resolution techniques, the importance of listening and specifically showing that you’re listening, not only aid in the conflict at hand, but create a more open space to deal with future conflict.
  10. Admit you were wrong: While not super fun, turning the spotlight of you or your own team’s behavior is one of the quintessential conflict resolution techniques, but luckily is in the nature of many Project Managers. We build process; evaluating our own behavior as the people driving process is necessary to flag breakdowns in communication, bottlenecks, and where expectations could be set better. Let’s face it – there’s always something we can be doing better for our teams or clients.
  11. Communicate the takeaways and learnings for next time: What’s the point of all these tricky conversations if we don’t come away with learnings to improve our team dynamics, process, and culture? Documenting breakdowns in communication and their source can help desilo teams that should work more collaboratively. Stating actions that each party will take in future as a result of the conversation arms employees and managers alike with conflict resolution techniques (and maybe even prevention techniques!) that make future conversations much easier.
  12. Create Space For Conversation And Have Open Channels To Address Conflict: Easier said than done. However, having the proper culture, channels for communication, and processes in place before conflict arises makes all of the above conflict resolution techniques more likely to succeed, and helps set expectations for your team on how to deal with tricky situations. Clear channels for peer feedback, or bottom-up feedback (yes, employee to manager) are absolutely essential in building an aligned, cohesive team. If an employee is not empowered, or more importantly, doesn’t feel empowered to raise issues to their managers or peers in a neutral zone, it’s likely to never happen until things reach a boiling point, or worse, the employee quits. Scheduling regular “one on ones”  with a feedback framework within and across teams can act as a bit of a pressure valve to ensure that any problematic dynamics can be addressed before they get in the way of project throughput or start to create a toxic atmosphere.

These techniques are from my own experiences and tips from various project management sites.

Image credit: jobstreet.com.sg

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