If you get any group of people together for long enough, some sort of conflict will be inevitable. We are all different and while diversity is important for problem-solving and developing a well-rounded organisation, differences in opinions can also be challenging.
We often think of conflict as people raising their voices or having an outright argument, but it can also take far more insidious forms, such as emotional manipulation. It might also be a cultural issue that results in misunderstanding or a clash of leadership styles. Often, it's where one person's job relies on something someone else has to do that can cause friction
Disagreements will happen in any workplace, but the way they are handled can be the difference between happy and miserable employees, between productivity and frustration, and between forward momentum and stagnation. Managing conflict is something every leader needs to master to ensure continued growth and success for their whole team. Here are some strategies I have found helpful:
- Acknowledging that conflict is natural and inevitable People tend to think that if they avoid dealing with conflict it might go away, but the truth is that it's inescapable. If disagreements are ignored, they can simmer, and they normally result in greater disharmony in the long run. Instead of ignoring office conflict, we need to understand that it is every person's responsibility to handle it wisely. If you are in a leadership role, managing conflict is part and parcel of your job.
- Understanding the different forms that conflict can take We often think of conflict as people raising their voices or having an outright argument, but it can also take far more insidious forms, such as emotional manipulation. It might also be a cultural issue that results in misunderstanding or a clash of leadership styles. Often, it's where one person's job relies on something someone else has to do that can cause friction. Angelina Farrell calls this ‘interdependency-based conflict'. Many times, it's just the result of different personalities having to work together. It's important that we learn to spot clashes as they arise – and not just when the consequences roll out – and to manage them as early as possible.
- Focusing on facts, not blame Conflict is by its nature emotive and it's easy for emotions or personal issues to run riot. Instead of looking to attribute blame, I believe it's better to try to pin down the underlying cause for the strife. For example, is there a weak link in the communication process where one employee needs to hand over information to another? This not only helps to keep discord from becoming personal but to prevent future conflicts of the same nature by fixing issues before they can reoccur. It's also important, however, to limit discussions to the specific instance at hand and not generalise by saying things like ‘you never do proper handovers'.
- Defining acceptable behaviour It's easy to assume that everyone will know what is and isn't acceptable in a conflict situation, but we are all from different backgrounds with different coping mechanisms, so it's important to define what will and won't be allowed. Mike Myatt suggests the following: ‘Creating a framework for decisioning, using a published delegation of authority statement, encouraging sound business practices in collaboration, team building, leadership development, and talent management will all help avoid conflicts. Having clearly defined job descriptions so that people know what's expected of them, and a well articulated chain of command to allow for effective communication will also help avoid conflicts. Clearly and publicly make it known what will and won't be tolerated.'
Listening more; talking less Often disagreements can be quickly diffused by simply giving those involved a chance to have their say and be heard. This means not interrupting, or jumping in, but letting the person finish. I find it's then often helpful to check back with them that you've understood correctly, which also shows them you've heard them. For example, I might say, ‘What I'm hearing from you is that you're frustrated because …' Only once you've heard their point of view should you express your own.
F.R. (Rhys) Robinson, PhD is Executive Director, Infinitus Reporting Solutions (Pty) Ltd, provider of enterprise-wide consolidation, planning and reporting solutions.