When discussing conflict in the workplace it is quite likely that the images that come to mind are of harsh glares, voices raised in anger and slamming doors. These are the classic tell-tale signs of active disagreement and open hostility in the workplace. However, it’s important to note that these tend to be situation-specific and momentary in nature.
In reality, a far more pervasive, destructive and less easily detected form of conflict might be doing damage to the morale and productivity of your organization – constant, low-level discord which can take many forms, from bickering and sniping to passive-aggressive avoidance behaviors.
A good analogy might be the electrical system in your home. An occasional major argument can be thought of as a burned out bulb – occurring periodically in a particular room of the house and quickly resolved. Meanwhile, incessant low-grade conflict can be seen as a short circuit in your wiring that goes undetected while gradually draining vast amounts of energy and efficiency from every appliance in your entire home.
The elements of a productive “well wired” work environment include civility, mutual respect, high morale, clarity of role/purpose and optimism about the overall direction of the organization. Unfortunately, each of these can be easily eroded by the widespread, “under the radar” daily misunderstandings and related squabbles associated with the stressful economic times we currently are experiencing. And, as an elevated sense of uncertainty and insecurity creeps into our collective psyche, the conditions are ripe for interpersonal conflict to rise as well.
The good news is that as a leader you possess the ability to impact each of these environmental elements. Equally important, there are simple tools and techniques that can be utilized by your employees at all levels to help circumvent and diffuse these conflict situations.
Key steps you as a leader can take to reduce conflict include:
- Be empathetic and acknowledge the stress being felt by your employees – this provides an important sense of “permission” for people to openly disclose what they are feeling. Not needing to keep those feelings bottled up provides your employees with greater emotional bandwidth when facing the conflict triggers that pop up during interpersonal interactions.
- Be transparent about the stress you personally are experiencing – your honesty and authenticity will go a long way toward building others’ trust in you and loyalty to the organization.
- Convey a truthful yet optimistic vision for the future of the organization – don’t “sugar coat” the problems but remain focused on the opportunities and solutions.
- Express confidence in the ability of the workforce to overcome these challenges in a professional and respectful manner – set an example for others to live up to.
- Reiterate organizational values around treating one another with respect under any and all circumstances – this includes co-workers, customers and other strategic business partners. The primary reason that most employees leave their jobs AND that most customers take their business elsewhere has to do with negative interpersonal experiences.
- Introduce the concept that it is acceptable to “agree to disagree” – this helps avoid emotional stand-offs and the productivity paralysis that can ensue.
- Foster the notion that when a disagreement arises “being right” is far less important than getting something accomplished – “we all succeed or fail together.”
- Encourage people to take advantage of available support resources – Human Resources, Employee Assistance Programs, etc.
Key techniques your employees can utilize to help reduce and manage conflict include:
- Get in touch with your feelings and the circumstances causing them before reacting in a conflict situation.
- Take a few deep breaths, go for a short walk or find some other way to cool down and gain some emotional balance before responding.
- Remind yourself of the qualities you value in the other person and the importance you place on maintaining a good working relationship with them. Then, from that broader perspective, ask yourself if it is more important to be “right” or if it is preferable to maintain forward progress.
- Practice shifting away from “powerless” victim language (e.g. He made me so mad when…) to “empowered” language (e.g. I’m feeling angry because….). By doing so you put yourself in a position to change how you feel about the situation and the options available to you for resolving it.
- When working through a conflict situation ensure that you allow time for you and the other person each to “vent” your respective frustrations and viewpoints without interruption. Then, be willing to “own” that which is accurate and true about the other person’s perspective and look for common ground from which to move forward.
- Remain open to the possibility that there might be more than one “right answer” and that there are many paths that can lead to the same desired destination.
Always remember, you seldom have control over what happens to you but you always have absolute control over how you choose to react.