Sam and Jeanine have been arguing. Sam wants his staff to be free to use the staff break room whenever they choose. Jeanine wants the break room to be free for her own use. Sam believes that if Jeanine gets her way, his interests will lose out. Of course, Jeanine believes the same. They become locked in conflict. The battle of their wills. Similar scenarios of conflict are not uncommon on the job. Little conflicts can often cause huge rifts that can take months to get cleared out and cleaned up. Worse yet, we simply avoid conflict until it gets so overwhelming that we can no longer ignore it. By this time, small misunderstandings become huge issues.
Conflict can bring great things to an organization if managed wisely and seen as a catalyst for change. New ideas and innovation arise out of the ashes of conflict. Once understood, conflict can create momentum. Harnessed, conflict can foster a sense of unity and mutual understanding. Theodore Steinway, the maker of pianos once said, “In one of our concert grand pianos, 243 taut strings exert a pull of 40,000 pounds on an iron frame. It is proof that out of great tension may come great harmony.”
However, we often don’t do what needs to be done to turn tension into harmony within our organizations. Look closely at your work environment. Is it one in which differences of opinion are welcomed and even expected? Is conflict seen as positive? Do workers feel appreciated? Are their suggestions genuinely welcomed? Is there an atmosphere of conflict avoidance? Do employees use terms like, “That was a CLM” (career limiting move)? Or is conflict seen as an opportunity for change and understanding?
How do you assess where conflict may exist within your workplace? Here are some indicators that suggest the presence of unresolved conflicts:
- High levels of stress
- Excessive absenteeism
- Lowered productivity levels
- Chronic complaining
- Lack of cooperation
Many of these signs are indicators of your company’s current climate. They point to the well being of your company’s soul. They indicate where discontent may reside. Whether people feel valued for their contributions, excited about their work, or respected for their opinions and concerns. Conflict surfaces where people feel powerless.
What can you do to foster an environment where conflict is resolved productively? Start with targeting some areas where conflict pops up over and over. Ask yourself these questions:
- Do we diffuse the emotional content of the situation and allow people to vent? Is there a forum for getting “all of the bad air out”?
- Do we look beneath the words for hidden motivations or agendas underneath the obvious conflict?
- Are we truly surfacing the source of the conflict? Are we really bringing it fully out into the open?
- Do we direct the discussion away from individual personalities and onto the real issues?
- Are we looking to place blame via personal attacks?
Or are we willing to look beyond to the impersonal source of unwanted employee behavior?
Remember, information is power. Once understood from an objective point of view, you have greater information to work with for effecting change. As you hone your information gathering skills from an impersonal point of view, you will find your conflict resolution abilities increase, as well. Then, as conflict arises between employees, you can better assist in helping them look at both of their positions and interests.
Their position is “What I want.” Position usually comes up right away and often we look no further, trying to resolve the conflict by compromise. Most people will resist compromise until they feel that there is a deeper understanding of what’s bugging them. They still feel that they are “giving up something” and resist changing their position. What a skilled facilitator in conflict resolution knows is that there is often an underlying problem that has not yet been addressed. Hence, the importance of getting “all of the bad air out.” In addition to each person’s position, take it a step further. Ask: “Why do you want it?” This gets to the heart of the matter. This question speaks to the underlying interests of the conflicting parties. It also allows for a deeper understanding and greater willingness to compromise, because each party feels understood and validated for feeling what they feel.
Back to the example about the break room, Sam and Jeanine would not compromise by only understanding each other’s position. They both had the same position – wanting to use the break room. Instead, we asked “why” they each wanted the break room, to uncover their underlying interests. Sam expects a lot from his staff, and just wanted his staff to feel like they had a place to unwind. Jeanine needed some extra training space on occasion, when the other training rooms were being used. The break room worked really well for this. Once they understood the interests behind their positions, they were able to work together to find creative solutions. Creative problem solving always produces win-win solutions.
Thomas Crum says, “Resolving conflict is rarely about who is right. It is about acknowledgement and appreciation of differences.” Conflict is inevitable. Don’t avoid it. Embrace it. Welcomed conflict can foster innovative thinking and greater employee contribution to the success of your company. By shifting your perspective and modeling new behavior, you can support a cultural shift within your organization, from an atmosphere that avoids conflict to one that welcomes it.
Written by Virginia Kellogg
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