This article “Tips on Managing Office Conflict” is a reminder that workplace conflict, while inevitable, does not have to have a negative impact. Many of us spend as much time with the people we work with as we do with our families. Since every human being is different and all have a lot at stake when we’re at work, conflicts, large and small, are going to arise every day. It’s not the conflicts themselves that often have an adverse effect, e.g., lost productivity, poor morale, ill health, and turnover, it’s how we deal with them.
It may be human nature to want to get one’s own way, but in the workplace, what feels like a ‘win’ to me may not be the best outcome for the long-term health of either the business or myself. Rather, putting what’s best for the company ahead of personal gain or ego is part of being a team player. Willingness to work collaboratively with others, even when you disagree, can lead to better solutions to problems and improved work relationships across the board. The practices that are part of working through differences constructively can actually lead to stronger organizational outcomes.
While many conflict resolution consultants and coaches advise approaching conflict by addressing the emotional, relationship issues before the more concrete underlying issues, we find it more effective to do the opposite. By focusing on and clarifying useful work and team practices, relationship issues can be put aside for the short term, and often end up resolving on their own in the long term.
The relationship of two co-workers in an organization we worked with had deteriorated to the point that they would go out of their way to avoid talking directly to one another, even though their interaction was required on a daily basis to complete their jobs. Their history included some substantive disagreement about work processes and very different styles of dealing with conflict. This led to an exchange six months ago in which one person’s voice was raised. After that time they used email almost exclusively to exchange information, which not only took more time than necessary but didn’t allow for the quality of interaction needed to solve project or customer related problems. This finally came to a head when their manager could no longer look the other way (he was something of a conflict avoider himself) and insisted that this must change.
Rather than try to get these two together to unravel all of the bad feelings that had festered and grown in hopes of repairing the relationship, we chose to address the issue as a part of work with the larger team of which they were a part, focusing on improving overall work processes of the entire team. As the team worked through describing their ‘end-to-end’ process (from first customer contact to product delivery & billing), including identifying bottlenecks and other recurring problems, each member could see the role he or she played, for good or for ill, in the quality of the processes.
This was enhanced by having each complete self-assessments related to their style of conflict resolution (Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Inventory) and overall personal preference style (MBTI) which they shared and used to gain more insight into how they worked as a team. As they worked together to find and agree on ways to improve their overall process, the two individuals whose relationship had been so broken were able to mend the way in which they would work together in the future. It wasn’t because they liked each other more or forgave each other for past transgressions. It was because they saw how their dysfunction was affecting the work of the team and the ultimate success of the company. In fact, they were both quite grateful that they had not had to endure the discomfort of confronting one another about past behaviors and built up animosities. They could go forward without dwelling on the past at all and, in time, the animosities would fade.
The team as a whole also learned about resolving differences by focusing on the broader goals and purposes they shared, accepting the differences they had and being willing to engage in collaborative problem solving to work them out. Ultimately, the culture of the company as a whole began to shift away from conflict avoidance and fault-finding to one in which people valued the skills of dealing with conflict directly and constructively.
For many more (true) stories like this one and a more detailed description of approaches to effective workplace conflict resolution, pick up a copy of The Power of Difference: From Conflict to Collaboration, by Dana Morris-Jones.