Workplaces are naturally stressful environments, and personal conflicts between co-workers can be both a cause and product of this stress. Yet allowing them to build and intensify will only further impair the work environment. When people work together, conflict is often unavoidable because of differences in work goals and personal styles.
From Dispute to Discomfort, from Conflict to Crisis
Initially, a dispute between one or more employees, without resolution, may cause an uncomfortable working environment, characterized by gossip and rumor, an awkward atmosphere and non-cooperation between team members. This, in turn, can lead to a further dispute in the form of arguments and complaints. At this point, others may become involved and take sides. Incidents escalate and tension rises. This is now a conflict situation. The passing of blame becomes a formal complaint; employees are increasingly non-productive as all their energy is directed towards the conflict.
Without management intervention, the conflict can readily approach crisis point. There may be strong clashes, highly emotional outbursts, shock resignations, verbal abuse, even threats of physical violence. At this point, the only option is to ponder…how was this situation allowed to get so out of hand? So how do we prevent a crisis situation from happening in the first place?
Follow these guidelines for handling conflict in the workplace.
- Talk with the other person.
- Ask the other person to name a time when it would be convenient to meet.
- Arrange to meet in a place where you won’t be interrupted.
- Focus on behavior and events, not on personalities.
- Say “When this happens …” instead of “When you do …”
- Describe a specific instance or event instead of generalizing.
- Listen carefully.
- Listen to what the other person is saying instead of getting ready to react.
- Avoid interrupting the other person.
- After the other person finishes speaking, rephrase what was said to make sure you understand it.
- Ask questions to clarify your understanding.
- Identify points of agreement and disagreement.
- Summarize the areas of agreement and disagreement.
- Ask the other person if he or she agrees with your assessment.
- Modify your assessment until both of you agree on the areas of conflict.
- Prioritize the areas of conflict.
- Discuss which areas of conflict are most important to each of you to resolve.
- Develop a plan to work on each conflict.
- Start with the most important conflict.
- Focus on the future.
- Set up future meeting times to continue your discussions.
- Follow through on your plan.
- Stick with the discussions until you’ve worked through each area of conflict.
- Maintain a collaborative, “let’s-work-out-a-solution” attitude.
With a basic understanding of the five conflict management strategies, small business owners can better deal with conflicts before they escalate beyond repair.
The accommodating strategy essentially entails giving the opposing side what it wants. The use of accommodation often occurs when one of the parties wishes to keep the peace or perceives the issue as minor. For example, a business that requires formal dress may institute a “casual Friday” policy as a low-stakes means of keeping the peace with the rank and file. Employees who use accommodation as a primary conflict management strategy, however, may keep track and develop resentment.
The avoidance strategy seeks to put off conflict indefinitely. By delaying or ignoring the conflict, the avoider hopes the problem resolves itself without a confrontation. Those who actively avoid conflict frequently have low esteem or hold a position of low power. In some circumstances, avoiding can serve as a profitable conflict management strategy, such as after the dismissal of a popular but unproductive employee. The hiring of a more productive replacement for the position soothes much of the conflict.
Collaboration works by integrating ideas set out by multiple people. The object is to find a creative solution acceptable to everyone. Collaboration, though useful, calls for a significant time commitment not appropriate to all conflicts. For example, a business owner should work collaboratively with the manager to establish policies, but collaborative decision-making regarding office supplies wastes time better spent on other activities.
The compromising strategy typically calls for both sides of a conflict to give up elements of their position in order to establish an acceptable, if not agreeable, solution. This strategy prevails most often in conflicts where the parties hold approximately equivalent power. Business owners frequently employ compromise during contract negotiations with other businesses when each party stands to lose something valuable, such as a customer or necessary service.
Competition operates as a zero-sum game, in which one side wins and other loses. Highly assertive personalities often fall back on competition as a conflict management strategy. The competitive strategy works best in a limited number of conflicts, such as emergency situations. In general, business owners benefit from holding the competitive strategy in reserve for crisis situations and decisions that generate ill-will, such as pay cuts or layoffs.