Recent studies find that more than a quarter of a manager’s time is spent being engaged in or resolving workplace conflict. Some research even puts this figure closer to 40 percent. Why is this so troubling? Because conflict results in stress, frustration and anxiety — which, according to the Centre for Conflict Resolution International, can end up costing an organization $1.7 billion in lost work.
“Conflict is inevitable,” said Mary Scannell, corporate trainer and author of The Big Book of Conflict Resolution Games: Quick, Effective Activities to Improve Communication, Trust and Collaboration. “We’ve got different personalities. We have different perspectives. We may have different goals or perceived goals. Just the way we go about attaining those might put us in conflict with one another.”
As a result, preventing conflict is not the objective — the objective is to create an organizational culture that allows for disputes and encourages resolution, Scannell said.
“What you want to do overall is build a foundation of trust,” she said. “If you try to make conflict go away, then it goes under the surface, and people feel that they’re not able to really express their views and opinions and have those healthy interactions with others. You don’t want that.”
The first step is to recognize that conflicts typically fall into one of two categories: “hot” or “cold.” Hot conflicts are easier to identify: They’re usually one-off debates or arguments in which voices are raised and emotions are at the surface. Cold conflicts, meanwhile, may be more difficult to pinpoint — and they’re often more detrimental.
“[It] might be avoidance: You take a different way through the hallway because you don’t even want to have the chance of running into somebody. Or you’re in the same meeting together but you’re talking around each other or doing whatever you can to avoid the other person or avoid any sort of interaction with the other person,” Scannell said. “Other forms of avoidance would be you’re not coming in to work because you don’t want to deal with what you perceive to be a clash with another person. Or you might sabotage: ‘I’m just a little late in getting you what you need? Oh, sorry, you missed your deadline?’ Little backhanded stuff like that.”
In either case, leaders are the best tool a company has to help teach effective conflict resolution habits.
“Management can do a lot to model the behaviors they want to see in the people that work for them,” Scannell said. “A manager [should be] up on what it takes to build those trusting relationships and what healthy communication looks like, and how, when you are in disagreement with another, to listen effectively so you can understand what the real problem is and work together to figure out a solution that both people can be satisfied with.”
The most important behavior for leaders to model to treat and reduce workplace conflict is the ability to listen effectively, followed by the ability to ask appropriate questions.
“Stop before you react and just gather yourself. Ask more questions,” Scannell said. “A lot of times we feel we have to broadcast our position — there’s a lot of telling involved. If you’re really looking for a collaborative solution, there needs to be a lot of asking involved. Going through the motions isn’t going to cut it. You’ve really got to open yourself to that other perspective.”
Asking questions also allows each party to learn more about the other, which facilitates resolution.
“The more you get to know somebody and to understand their personality and trust that other person, the more you’re going to be willing to accept where they’re coming form without jumping on them,” Scannell said. “It’s like a husband and wife: You know each other really well, but that doesn’t mean there’s no conflict. However, you’re more open to resolving those because the end goal is, ‘We’re still going to be here together tomorrow. We’ve got to work through this.’”
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