Conflict in the workplace is inevitable, but it doesn't have to be perpetual. The trick is in guiding employees to handle conflict when it first bubbles up so it never reaches the point of bubbling over.
Many people don't have a clue about how to deal directly with disagreement, tension, or even their own resentment. A quick review of the basics in conflict management can go a long way in creating a better, more collaborative work environment.
- Avoiding conflict. The most common mistake people make when faced with conflict is to avoid it entirely. Stuffing feelings down inside without dealing with them creates bigger problems. Avoidance and silence do not resolve conflicts; in fact, they tend to multiply them since nothing gets resolved. Use a benchmark for confronting issues: If you have had three or more instances of thinking about something troubling, challenge yourself to address it and take steps for achieving resolution.
- Not asking for what you want. Not being clear about your own desires, and instead waiting for someone else to recognize what you need is another classic mistake that leads to resentment over time. People can't read minds, so if you don't take the time to clarify what you want and express your concerns, then others won't know to create a solution. And resorting to passive-aggressive behavior, silent treatment, snide comments, or bullying is no way to achieve satisfaction. The best way to deal with conflict is to know your own mind and then speak it.
- Not listening. Dismissing issues that someone wants to express is another mistake in handling conflict. This can happen because someone thinks the person raising the issue is below him, out of line, or not worthy of attention. When the person who is not being heard is a stakeholder in your work or on your team, not listening will cost you. The conflict will go underground until it resurfaces in reduced productivity, behind-the-back conversations, and eventually, constant low morale. Active listening, on the other hand, can provide welcome opportunities for addressing misguided perceptions or communicating around unchangeable project parameters. Often people just want to "feel heard" and that doesn't require agreeing with or acting on what is shared. Listening is a simple yet effective way to diffuse conflict.
- Not recognizing differences in communication styles. This last mistake is the trickiest, because it requires awareness that people have different communication styles. Tuning into these differences can minimize conflict by undermining assumptions about other people's behaviors. For example, colleagues might view someone who prefers blunt speech as rude; conversely, a person with a preference for getting to the point might view less direct speech as evasive or manipulative. Someone who prefers to begin a business conversation with social banter about the weekend might be viewed as a time waster, while someone else who prefers to get right down to business could be seen as aloof and unfriendly. By learning about the 4 different communication styles and being mindful about differences, people can avoid misunderstanding and minimize conflict in the workplace.
Getting people to work better together involves giving them tools for identifying and confronting problems, establishing a culture that values both speaking up and listening carefully, and developing awareness around potential for misunderstanding. It's also important to communicate that dealing effectively with conflict in the workplace is not a shaman's gift but is a learnable, teachable skill.