Almost everyone has experienced interpersonal conflict, and it is quite interesting when you are not the one going through it. Scripted dramas about enemies and rivals continue to attract viewers, and reality TV series are based entirely on scenarios meant to sow discord among series participants. When you are involved in an interpersonal conflict with a family member or coworker, however, it is very stressful. Conflict resolution in the workplace is especially challenging. Simply avoiding the person with whom you disagree is usually not possible in a workplace setting. Instead, it is your responsibility to seek a solution to your workplace conflict, for the sake of your personal well-being and/or career.
Why Is Conflict Resolution in the Workplace So Difficult?
In the workplace, conflict resolution is so stressful because everyone wants to succeed at their job. People derive their self-esteem and reputation from their career success. Therefore, unhappiness at work often translates into unhappiness in one’s personal life. Furthermore, people who are willing to compromise with family members tend to want to fight to the finish at work. Even though you do not have to see your coworkers every year during the holidays as you do with your in-laws and extended family, it is still in everyone’s interest for you to resolve your differences with your coworkers peacefully.
Effective Conflict Resolution Is the Key to Individual and Group Success at Work
If you are having an ongoing disagreement with a coworker, it helps to put things in perspective. Keep these truths in mind when you are tempted to put all your energy into convincing everyone that you are right and your coworker is wrong:
• If the project on which you and your coworker are working does not turn out as you planned, this is not a personal failure of yours. Plenty of other things in your life are going well.
• You have made your point in writing, probably in the form of emails. There is documentation of your point of view. If it turns out that you were right all along, the evidence of this will be clear.
• Very few decisions in the workplace are truly final. You will probably have another chance to make your point.
Building Your Conflict Resolution Skills
Workplaces where everyone wants to be right and no one wants to listen to anyone else have low productivity and morale. Everyone in the work environment could stand to learn more about conflict resolution in the workplace. Fortunately, tools are available to help you achieve this goal.
How to Tell If Conflict Is Putting a Damper on Productivity in Your Workplace
Some managers mistakenly think that, if the teams they manage do not perform well, they can only fix it by bossing people around. Others feel compelled to involve themselves in every detail of every group project in their department. Bossiness, micromanagement, and aloofness are not your only choices. In fact, if you adopt one of these approaches, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to improve your team’s performance. The first step to conflict resolution in the workplace is to identify the source of the conflict.
These are some signs that a team you are managing is descending into conflicts that require your intervention to resolve:
• The quality of the team’s work has begun to suffer.
• The team struggles to meet deadlines, mainly if, previously, they always used to submit their work on time.
• Members of the team no longer engage in conversations with each other that are not related to work.
• Team members make more negative comments, both in group settings and when they talk to you individually.
• Employees on your team try to spend less time at work. This could mean that they come to work late or leave early. It might also manifest itself as taking longer breaks or more frequent breaks. They might even take leaves of absence from work, citing stress-related illnesses.
• When you meet with employees one-on-one, the explanation one employee gives you about a problem might contradict the explanation another employee gives.
You should meet with all the employees on your team individually. To diagnose the problems as stemming from interpersonal conflicts, you should rule out other common reasons for reductions in productivity. For example, you should make sure that the problem is not an overly heavy workload or too much noise and too many distractions in the office. The bad news is that conflict resolution is a complex problem to resolve. It is not as simple as insulating the walls of the office so that it is less noisy or hiring some additional employees so that everyone’s workload becomes manageable.
Conducting Productive Discussions With Employees About Workplace Conflict
In the workplace, conflict resolution should not look like litigation. Do not place yourself as a manager in the role of judge or ask employees to present arguments like a plaintiff and a defendant in a lawsuit would do. Instead, meet with team members individually, even the ones who appear not to harbor grudges against anyone. Take a neutral tone and do not make it sound like a deposition or cross-examination.
Instead, when you meet individually with an employee, ask the employee to tell you what he or she has accomplished or has been working on recently. Ask if the employee has any suggestions about the direction of the project and if there is anything you can do to help. Do not tell things to one employee that another has told you in confidence. Don’t tell one employee that he or she is right and another employee is wrong. Instead, solicit feedback from all team members and then take the lead about what to do next.
You Can Resolve Some Conflicts Quickly by Taking Action Promptly
A frequently cited productivity tip is to reply immediately to all emails that require less than two minutes to draft a response. It takes much less time to write a short email now than it does to find the time to write it later. Similarly, if you see a conflict among coworkers that you can resolve quickly, you should do it. By acting now instead of later, you can stop minor disagreements from building into resentment and protracted conflicts. Immediate conflict resolution could mean intervening in a tense exchange if only to distract the participants from their anger.
For example, imagine that Alice and Bob are arguing about which of them is responsible for which task. As the manager, you had left it to the team to decide, but this does not seem to be working. You could make a mental note to write a to-do list for each team member, but by the time you get around to it, Alice and Bob might be sworn enemies. A better response would be to say, “Alice, you type this week’s survey responses into the spreadsheet. Bob, you research SEO keywords.” In doing so, you are buying time. You may still need to write an itemized to-do list for the team. By the time you finish it, however, Alice and Bob will have one less unresolved conflict than they would have had if you had not intervened.
If you need to address something with the whole team, it is better to fire off a quick email than to schedule a meeting for next week. The people who really need to talk to you about your new set of instructions will respond to the email. They might even want to meet with you about it one-on-one. There is no need to interrupt everyone’s work and make them change their schedules to attend the meeting. Instead, you can just get straight to the point.
Know When You Are In Over Your Head
The best managers have the wisdom to figure out when they need outside help with conflict resolution in the workplace. It is not possible to resolve all conflicts with a smile, a thoughtfully worded email, or a series of one-on-one meetings. For conflicts where the parties have reached an impasse, you might need the help and guidance of other decision-makers in your organization. You might even need to involve professional mediators or employment lawyers.
Once you have done this, though, you should build your own conflict resolution skills and your confidence in them. Find ways to manage conflict before it escalates to a situation that requires the help of someone outside your team. Developing your skills in conflict management is an excellent investment of your time. It will make you a more effective manager, and teams with more effective managers are more productive.
Making the First Move Toward a Harmonious Workplace
If you work in an environment where you must cooperate with others to make high-stakes decisions, you can do your job more effectively by learning effective communication and conflict-resolution skills. If you are in a managerial role, you can increase the effectiveness of your entire team by having all the employees under your direction participate in a conflict resolution training course. Contact PeaceComm to find out more about individual and group training sessions on workplace conflict resolution and communication skills.