by Jennifer Tobkin
by Jennifer Tobkin
Even if you were a good student in business school or professional school, there are some skills that you can only learn on the job. Practical experience is the only way to get used to your real customers and employees; no amount of role-play of hypothetical scenarios can prepare you for the real thing. Real customers and employees try your patience, and they take offense to things that you never imagined would bother someone. Interpersonal conflicts in the workplace are so time-consuming that they can reduce the productivity of the entire organization, not just the people directly involved. The good news is that there are training courses, and even certification programs, for managing conflict in the workplace.
Interpersonal Relationships Are the Hardest Part of Being a Manager
In some professions, it is possible to avoid other people’s conflicts and drama. Some people naturally gravitate toward occupations where they get to work independently, and differences of opinion cannot get in the way of accomplishing their work tasks. Even in a conflict-prone company, you can avoid your coworkers’ hostility if you work in certain roles. The fact that the receptionists can’t stand each other is not your problem if you work in billing, and your office has a door. When you are a manager, however, managing conflict in the workplace is inevitable. You wouldn’t be a good manager if you only took the lead when things were going well and then just left people to work out their disagreements without your help. Since you are responsible for the success of an entire department or company, everyone’s conflict affects you.
Common Sources of Conflict in a Work Environment
These are some frequent sources of conflict in a work environment:
• Unfairly negative online reviews by customers
• Employees who feel that they are expected to take on a disproportionate share of the work
• Miscommunications among employees
• Resentment about managers being too bossy
• Shifting blame from one person to another
• Stress over the company losing revenues
• Business owners disagreeing about their vision for the company’s future
In other words, managing conflict in the workplace is not about solving just one kind of problem.
Sometimes the Most Effective Way to Resolve a Conflict Is Not the Fastest
It is easy to imagine yourself as a hero who speaks up against injustice as soon as you see it, but in management, things are more complicated. Publicly reprimanding an employee can have all kinds of negative consequences. You might get a reputation as a bully rather than a leader. Both the person whose behavior you were trying to correct and the target of their injustice might feel like you are putting them on the spot.
If a meeting devolves into ad hominem attacks, the best move might be to change the subject or even to end the meeting prematurely. Most of the time, the most professional way to criticize people about their behavior is in private. No one likes to feel like they are being called into the principal’s office. When possible, the best time to tell someone that you want to meet with them privately is in person. By doing this, you can ensure that the person has chosen a time when they are ready to listen. During the meeting, don’t be confrontational, but do communicate clearly that the person’s behavior was unacceptable.
Keeping Things Professional When Emotions Run High
Children learn as early as elementary school that name-calling is wrong, and so is saying things you don’t mean just to make someone angry or to embarrass them. In first-year business school classes on organizational behavior, you learn to focus on problems and not on the people causing them. In a perfect world, everyone would apply these standards of behavior in the workplace, but this does not always happen.
Managing a team of employees who behave like Internet trolls, even in person, is a thankless job. When you are giving criticism, you should be as specific as possible. You should also criticize specific actions, not people or their general personality characteristics. It can be difficult to do this even when people are trying to draw you into mudslinging battles, but it is the only way to create a tolerable work environment.
Being a Good Listener Is an Important Part of Managing Conflict in the Workplace
Listening skills are important not only for building a rapport with your team but also for resolving conflicts. Effective listening is much more challenging than it seems; it is actually a lot more work than speaking. The simple act of not interrupting requires concentration, If you have a bad habit of interrupting, make sure that you wait for the speaker to get to a punctuation mark before you interject something.
The hardest part of listening effectively is not to let your own anticipated responses distract you. On the phone, it is acceptable to write notes to get your thoughts out so you can focus on what the other person is saying. Taking notes on what the other person is saying can also help you focus on what you are hearing instead of on what you want to say in response.
Finding Common Ground
The most effective managers can make all parties to a conflict feel like the manager is on their side. A pessimist might say that doing this makes you a smooth talker who is insincere with everyone. From a conflict management perspective, empathizing with all of the parties involved in a conflict is an important part of conflict resolution.
Even in mediation sessions, you should meet with all the parties separately before you bring them together. During these private meetings, you should be clear about the points on which you agree with your interlocutor, as well as the points on which you disagree.
Choosing Your Battles
In some workplaces, people who have been working together for years barely see eye-to-eye on anything. Your role as a manager is to prioritize which conflicts to try to solve. In doing so, you must decide which problems will solve themselves if you find a solution to one conflict.
How easy it is to solve a conflict should not be your only criterion for deciding on which conflict you address first. You may find that the conflict that is causing the most problems in the work environment is the most difficult to solve. It is in everyone’s interest if you address it. Solving the problem may take a lot of your time. In the most extreme cases, it might require you to reassign certain employees so that they no longer have to collaborate directly with each other. Your decisive actions will help everyone be more productive, and your employees will appreciate it.
Thinking Before You Act
Managers can easily make a bad first impression when they arrive at a new workplace thinking that they know how to solve all the conflicts that have been brewing for years. Remember that you are trying to resolve problems that your predecessor tried unsuccessfully to solve. Even worse, you might be following a long string of managers who gave up quickly and moved on to other jobs when they realized how complex the problems in the workplace were. The best thing you can do is to study the situation before you decide which actions to take. It is very hard to gain longtime employees’ trust by thinking that you have all the answers.
Managing Conflict in the Workplace Is an Ongoing Process
Another common conflict management mistake is to assume that, once a problem is solved, it is solved forever. Relationships are an ongoing process, and conflict management in the workplace means actively maintaining relationships among coworkers and with other organizations. Just as it is possible to have a former friend, it is possible to have a former client or a former employee. Modeling and encouraging collegial behavior within your team will pay off, but you must be consistent about doing it if you want your employees to do the same. Using expressions like “team building” and “conflict management” can make employees feel like you are talking at them and wasting their time. It is better just to get to know your employees and listen to them on a human level as well as a professional one.
How to Get Better at Managing Conflict in the Workplace
Like anything else you do in your career, managing conflict in the workplace is a skill to be learned. It takes practice, but the more guidance you can get from workplace conflict management experts, the better. It helps when people with professional experience in conflict management training can provide you with tools to manage conflicts that emerge later on. If you are feeling overwhelmed by interpersonal conflict within your team, you can rely on workplace conflict mediators or conflict management coaches. For long-term solutions to a conflict-plagued workplace, it is a good idea to enroll in conflict management training courses. Depending on your needs, you might choose individual coaching sessions for you or group workshops for your entire team. You can even complete a certification course and earn a conflict management certificate. Give us a call to find out more about your options for conflict management training.
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