Handling Conflict at Work

Get used to it!  Conflict is everywhere.  It is natural to disagree, and conflict often results from the interaction of people and groups with different values, perspectives and beliefs.  It can be rooted in factions or rivalries or in the polarized approaches of strong personalities.  Sometimes it can come from the frustration of trying to discuss or resolve an issue before the time is right.  Whatever the source of your particular conflict, you cannot know how to handle these confrontations without understanding their roots.  Let's break it down:

We all have needs, and when someone ignores our needs, we feel frustrated and argumentative.  On the other hand, we may withdraw, and try to undermine the process without confrontation.  Don't confuse ‘needs' with what you may ‘want'.  They are two different things.  Nourishment is a basic ‘need'.  Without food, we cannot survive for long.  However, if you said you ‘needed' chocolate, I would argue that point.

Reality is a strange thing!  Ideally, it is the same for everyone, but that is rarely the case.  If you put a group of 10 people together, and asked them about the weather, you would get differing opinions on the severity, the temperature, the wind, the humidity.  We all ‘perceive' things different and to the extent that we think something is important or trivial, there is the potential for conflict.

Each person has their own paradigm -- a set of beliefs or principles we hold as truth.  When we talk about an issue with someone who has incompatible or shifting values, there is the potential for conflict, especially if we insist that ours is the only correct opinion.  Just such a trigger has started many religious and political wars!  Human beings are emotional creatures.  We depend on our feelings to tell us what our 'gut' reaction is and sometimes we let them loose under the wrong circumstances, when cooler heads should prevail.

How one defines and uses power is important in conflict.  Some people feel that they must always come out on top in order to prove their superiority or just because they are always right, while others do not take confrontation well and they will give the power away to the one who cries the loudest, without agreeing with their position.  These more passive people may still create problems but quietly trying to undermine the solution that the stronger person pushed through.  So, be careful not to discount the quiet ones.  This power struggle scenario has a definite affect on how conflict is managed.  Conflicts arise when one or more people try to make others change their mind and vote a certain way or when the stronger party tries to take unfair advantage of the weaker party.

However, conflict is not always negative.  It can be healthy if it is managed effectively.  Putting people with diverse opinions in the same room will bring forth a richer solution, but only if the conflict is managed.  This well-facilitated conflict can result in unexpected growth, ingenious solutions to problems, new angles on solutions and many more options from which to choose.

When a group gets together, the first thing you need to think about is whether you have the right people in the room to solve a problem.  There is nothing worse than being stuck in conflict that the group cannot resolve because decision-makers are missing from the room during the discussion.  You may have some idea that a conflict will arise in this project, or you may think it will be smooth sailing.  Either way, set the stage right away for conflict management.

Write your ground rules on a board and refer to them if people violate them.  Everyone's opinion counts.  There are no stupid ideas.  We will hear and explore every idea that is presented.  We will not judge others or their opinions in advance based on what we think we know of them, even if we work with them every day.  We will consider all ideas objectively and in a non-judgmental manner.  We will not engage in bullying behavior, or create or encourage factions within the group.  You get the idea.  Come up with your own ground rules and make it abundantly clear that this group will play by the rules with NO exceptions.  When conflict does arise, you can use the following steps to manage the issue:

Analyze the nature and type of conflict.  Ask questions to better understand the positions and give everyone a chance to talk.  Write the FACTS on a blackboard or flip chart and stay away from emotional, subjective statements or inflammatory remarks.  Just the facts!

Select a strategy to deal with the conflict.  If you can't resolve it by taking it apart and carefully drawing conclusions, then consider involving a neutral facilitator to get the group moving toward consensus.  If the group members are too familiar with each other and know how to ‘push the buttons' an outside may be the best medicine and can provide a firm hand.

Reinforce the collaborative approach and strive for a 'win-win' result.  Use objective criteria for ranking ideas.  Don't just throw out an idea because someone says, "That is stupid".

Keep your common interests in mind -- not the methods by which you will achieve the interests, but the vision or goal itself.  Don't let the group be caught up in a power struggle over 'how'.  Identify options so that everyone is involved and then let the group discuss and recommend the best approach.  You may be able to make some trade-offs, or combine aspects from various options to come up with something that everyone likes.

Look for ways to compromise.  Not everything is critical.  Encourage the team to give and take.  I'll accept this if you give me that.  Remember to focus on the result and the outcome.  The group is trying to accomplish a task or come up with a solution to a problem.  Don't get so caught up in your conflict that the team produces a poor solution -- or no solution at all!

Be sure that the entire group signs up for the solution you choose.  You may even want to have every group member sign a commitment document.

Finally, monitor your team to ensure you are moving in the right direction and keep an eye open for the following dynamic combinations.  Any of these can bring your team to its knees:

Win/Lose -- one person or group is determined to win, and does not care about the input or concerns of the other person or group.  This happens when basic rights or values are at stake and it can result in retaliation by the losers, and endless cycle of ‘one-upsmanship'.  You'll never get anything done!

Lose/Win -- when an issue is more important to one group than to another group or individual, the apathetic person or group may give in just as a gesture of good will, thinking that the issue doesn't matter all that much anyway.  If the topic is on the table for debate and it is important to the business, then everyone HAS to care, whether they want to, or not!

Lose/Lose -- if the issue is not important to anyone or there are more critical things to think about, a person or group may make a decision without any thought or focus.  This scenario can also occur when a confrontation could have devastating results or when the group is making a decision without enough information or without involving the right people.  No one wins!

Information is for educational and informational purposes only and is not be interpreted as financial or legal advice. This does not represent a recommendation to buy, sell, or hold any security. Please consult your financial advisor.