by Jennifer Tobkin
by Jennifer Tobkin
Being a manager is less about bossing people around and more about keeping the peace. Conflict management in the workplace is one of the biggest challenges that many managers face. Even if you are a superstar at long-term planning, communicating instructions clearly, and giving constructive feedback, other people’s grievances can take up large amounts of your time and energy when you can least afford this. Managers can learn more about conflict management through coaching, training, and workshops. Effective conflict management is a feat of agility. Still, with enough conflict management skills and enough practice, you can prevent some conflicts before they start and quickly find a satisfactory resolution for others.
Conflict Is Inevitable in Most Employment Situations
If your goal is to manage a work environment where no one ever disagrees, you will be sorely disappointed. Even the famously agreeable Buddy Bears in that old Garfield Saturday morning cartoon nearly came to blows when faced with the decision of which toppings to order on a pizza. These are some common types of conflict that occur in various workplaces:
- Restaurant guests complain that the food is taking too long to be ready
- College students or the parents of K-12 students complain that a teacher graded an assignment unfairly
- Students complain that teachers unfairly accused them of cheating or of disciplinary infractions
- Coworkers assigned to the same project complain that a member of their team is failing to pull his or her weight on work tasks
- Customers complain about return policies
- Coworkers blame each other for a project’s lack of success
How Is Conflict Management in the Workplace Different From Conflict Resolution?
Conflict resolution among coworkers is only one aspect of conflict management in the workplace. Many conflict resolution trainings focus on dealing with pre-existing conflicts between coworkers who must continue to work together. By contrast, conflict management is wider in scope. It deals in part with making your workplace conflict-proof. For example, one way to prevent coworker conflicts is to prevent miscommunication. Toward this goal, Gordon Ramsay advises cooks in a restaurant kitchen to reply to instructions by saying “yes, chef,” so the chef knows that the team member understands and accepts the instructions. This way the chef does not give the same instructions to another cook and ends up with twice as many steaks as the guests ordered. In an office environment, use Google Docs and shared calendars where everyone can see the same to-do list and know what others are already doing.
The Four Horsemen of a Communication Breakdown
The best managers let employees manage their own conflicts when it is feasible and appropriate to do this. No one wants to work for a manager who calls meetings or hands out demerits at the slightest sign of conflict. Conflict is a necessary part of problem-solving, just as it is a necessary element of the plot of a narrative. You can tell, however, that a conflict requires your intervention when you see any of the four horsemen of a communication breakdown, namely criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling. This is how each of these harmful conflict strategies manifests itself:
• Criticism- Criticism of ideas is a normal and necessary part of conflict resolution. If your employees are issuing personal criticisms and ad hominem attacks, however, this is a red flag.
• Contempt – Contempt is just a fancy word for disrespect. It occurs when one employee has written another off and refuses to take them seriously.
• Defensiveness- This is when you refuse to accept criticism, even if you freely dish it out.
• Stonewalling – Also known as the silent treatment, stonewalling is when you refuse to talk to the person at all.
All of these types of communication breakdowns have one thing in common. They all involve people refusing to listen to each other and refusing to consider each other’s ideas.
Getting Quiet People to Speak Up and Stopping Know-It-Alls From Dominating the Conversation
When it comes to conflict management in the workplace, an ounce of conflict prevention is worth a pound of conflict resolution. Without proper planning, if you bring a group of employees together to discuss their differences, the same old patterns will reassert themselves. Specifically, the loud people will dominate the conversation, and the quiet people will keep their resentments to themselves.
Setting ground rules about how much time each person can spend speaking during a meeting probably will not work, either. At best, it will feel like a discussion section in a college class. At worst, it will be like the scene in Lord of the Flies, where the stranded schoolboys decide that whoever is holding the conch shell gets to speak. Simply drawing attention to the fact that one person has the floor while another does not is not an effective solution. It only adds a power trip or ineffectual manager to the mix, making the situation even worse.
Conflict Management in the Workplace Is an Ongoing Process
Conflict management should be your entire workplace culture, not an intervention to fire up once things have gone from bad to worse. Your goal should be to facilitate communication among members of your team with everything you do. For example, when it comes to issues that are likely to cause disagreement, it can be better to solicit team members’ views by email. Professors know that asking for written responses is an effective way to get quiet students to speak up. This strategy works as well in the workplace as it does in the classroom. Use your judgment about which questions are appropriate for “reply all” and which are best if team members reply to you individually.
The Most Effective Conflict Management Doesn’t Happen in the Conference Room
One of the most effective strategies for conflict management in the workplace is simply to cultivate a good rapport with your team members. This can be as simple as stopping to chat by the water cooler. Even if making small talk does not come naturally to you, it is worthwhile to try to get to know your team members better. If you had a teacher in high school who wore silly ties or mismatched socks, this was probably why. It is hard for most people to think up small talk topics on the spot. If your tie depicts the eight planets or a Welsh corgi, the small talk will come to you.
Conflict management in the workplace is the ulterior motive behind catered lunches. Your team members would rather work through their lunch breaks than be forced to sit through a communal meal. Therefore, the best possible conflict management feast does not have mandatory attendance. It just has food so irresistible that people will want to stay and eat, whether you invite them or not. Your role is to sit and eat and to invite others to sit with you or simply to take food back to their offices. Not everyone will sit down and bond with you, but everyone will appreciate that you were thoughtful enough to buy them lunch with no strings attached. Bonus points if the food came from a restaurant that a team member told you about during water cooler small talk.
Keeping a Respectful Distance From Interpersonal Conflict
Staying neutral in the midst of interpersonal conflicts on your team is a challenge, but it is of the utmost importance. Whenever possible, it is best to talk to employees one-on-one about their conflicts with coworkers, instead of asking them to air their grievances in front of the whole group. Remember, fewer than half of the employees in any given workplace are comfortable voicing their disagreement with their coworkers or supervisors in a group setting.
You as a manager should send the message, without directly saying it, that employees can talk to you in confidence about their interpersonal conflicts in the workplace. When employees are upset, do not fuel their negative emotions with your own outrage, but also do not dismiss their concerns. When you address the whole group, make it clear that you asked for the opinions of all parties, but that you made the final decision.
Knowing when to make unilateral decisions and when to decide by committee goes a long way toward preventing conflicts. The best way to avoid bickering and resentment is to make employees feel like you care about their opinions and are always listening. You are the manager, though, and your decision stands. If you know that your decision will make some people unhappy, deliver it with a neutral expression or by email.
How to Help Your Team Build Conflict Management Skills
Training workshops on conflict management in the workplace can help managers streamline their work environments to prevent avoidable conflicts. These trainings can also help managers make the workplace efficient enough that unavoidable conflicts do not derail the workflow. One-on-one or group sessions are available to help managers resolve existing conflicts in their places of business and strategize about how to make future projects as conflict-proof as possible.
Contact PeaceComm to find out more about which conflict management trainings are most appropriate for you and your work environment.
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