April 29, 2021
By: Kevin Gardner
Conflict is universal. How we handle our inevitable disputes with other people is often what determines our own success in life. Workplace environments in particular can be social pressure-cookers that put our capacity for critical thinking to the test. Here are six practical strategies for dealing with conflicts that emerge at work.
1. Acknowledge the Problem
Conflicts have a way of brewing beneath the surface of social interaction. Things left unstated for the sake of not "causing a scene" start to fester and thus become worse. This is infamously common in harassment cases, but the tendency to engage in this extends across a spectrum of grievances. Suppose you're a tech startup and there's a conflict brewing over runbooks. Since this affects technical efficiency, the first impulse of the programmers might be to bury the issue entirely—yet, the friction remains, which in turn wrecks the efficiency that they were trying to preserve by sweeping things under the rug. The point is that thinking of silence as a solution leads to a paradox. It never ends the problem.
2. Create a Safe Environment for Communication
What gets you on the path to solving conflict is communication. The best kind way to do this is one-on-one. If you're in human resources or management, speak to each employee involved personally. If you're the one having the issue with a fellow employee, meet somewhere public but where you won't be interrupted; everyone feeling like they're on neutral ground is important. If that's not possible, actual personal mediation might be necessary, which is another job for HR professionals or even outside, independent mediators.
3. Identify the Root Cause of the Conflict
Dissecting the conflict in order to trace it back to its source is vital to conflict resolution. To that end, place your focus on behaviors and events, not on the qualities of the people involved. What is the exact, original source of the dispute? Think in terms of causality and run through scenarios in which things could have gone right from the point of view of each person. Analyze if, in fact, different personalities are causing the same issue to be approached in different ways. This often mimics actual, fundamental disagreement.
4. Value Everyone's Perspective
In the overwhelming majority of cases, conflict resolution is not about who's objectively right and wrong. The goal is to create a solution that all parties can live with. This means that empathy skills need to be employed by all parties, including the mediator if one is present. Empathy is like a muscle; you only become strong in it if you use it. There's a name for this: metacognition. If everyone in a group is aware of their own level of awareness of how someone else might view something, it acts like an immunity to self-centered thinking and short-circuits conflict.
5. Identify Common Goals
Drawing a conflict to a close is dependent upon all parties finding some common ground or at least all feeling as if justice was done. An important tool for this is sublimating the conflict into a greater and more positive goal. Ask everyone what they hoped to gain from "winning" the argument. You'd be surprised by how many times people will agree upon ultimate objectives even if they differ on what road they prefer to take to get there. Something businesses often lack is an overarching vision that gives everyone involved an emotional stake in collective success. Everyone having the same ultimate mission detoxifies the workplace and gives conflicts an endgame.
6. Monitor the Process of Resolution
Make sure to engage in follow-up meetings after a conflict is formally resolved. In many cases, disputes have a tendency to linger, especially if deep personality differences remain unresolved. Disciplinary actions should be a last resort to conflict, so keep aware of situations where the same problem may rear its head again, and be ready with the tools you need to mitigate it.
It's impossible to banish the specter of personal conflict completely. That being said, by utilizing a collaborative approach to problem solving, even the worst conflicts can be mended before they hurt your enterprise or the people working so hard for it.
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