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If you can’t manage conflict, you can’t lead people

August 17, 2012

Article courtesy of SBAM Approved Partner ASE

By Cheryl Kuch  

More than four in 10 (41%) managers and employees think their supervisors do not deal well with workplace conflicts, according to a survey by Healthy Companies International. The management consulting firm surveyed 2,700 employees to probe their perceptions of 20 specific behaviors exhibited by their immediate supervisors. One important finding—among the behaviors that employees least trust their bosses to be good at is handling workplace conflict.

Most supervisors see conflict as a negative or bad thing.  But is it bad?  Not necessarily; it depends on what the conflict is about.  According to Patrick Lencioni, author of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, healthy conflict about ideas is an element (and necessity) of high performing teams. Differences of opinion can encourage creativity, change and progress.  But conflict resulting from personal attacks, as distinct from differing ideas, can lead to team dysfunction.   

So what causes so much conflict?  According to psychologists Art Bell and Bret Hart, there are eight common causes of conflict in the workplace: 

  • Conflicting styles—Different workers have different work styles and personalities.
  • Conflicting perceptions—Each of us sees the world through our own lens. Differences in perceptions of events can cause conflict. This is especially true when one person knows something and assumes the other person knows it too, but the other person does not know it.
  • Different personal values—Conflict arises when our work conflicts with our personal values, such as ethical dilemmas.
  • Conflicting resources—Conflict arises over such issues as assistance from colleagues, technology, space, or supplies.
  • Conflicting goals—Conflict arises over different priorities, speed of completion, or amount of  detail needed.
  • Conflicting pressures—Often we depend on colleagues to get our work done when they already have urgent deliverables due, which creates conflict. 
  • Conflicting roles—When we are asked to do something we don’t normally do or that someone else usually does, conflict and power struggles can occur.
  • Unpredictable policies—Conflict arises when rules or policies are not consistently enforced or changes not communicated.

Almost always it falls to the boss to handle workplace discord. Says Stephen Parker, president of Healthy Companies International, “Conflict occurs in every organization.  The boss has to balance values and outcomes, not simply impose a solution.”

According to Parker, bosses can make difficult situations even worse in a number of ways. “They may fail to understand the exact nature of the issue, or themselves become defensive or confrontational. Getting emotionally invested, ignoring the feelings of the people involved or denying one’s own part . . . each is a trap the boss can fall into.”

Inaction by the boss may also cause conflict, observed Parker. “A manager may choose to ignore inappropriate employee behavior, overlook broken promises or missed deadlines, or permit anger to ruin team meetings. Inability to manage conflict creates more conflict.” That is because conflicts don’t get better over time, they get worse.  

The managers can address conflict within teams by setting up and running a joint meeting with the conflicting employees.  Running the meeting must include the following steps:

  • Setting up ground rules for the meeting to ensure respectful exchanges which may include allowing each person to state their position without argument
  • Encouraging the parties to share facts of their conflict
  • Making sure the parties do not use accusations or attacks, but rather the facts of what they experienced or witnessed, not why they think it occurred and what outcome they would like to see occur
  • Summarizing the facts from each participant
  • Jointly brainstorming solutions to the conflict 
  • Asking for commitment to the agreed-upon solution
  • Setting goals for both parties, including who is going to do what and by when
  • Following up to ensure goals are adhered to

Good conflict management skills are not just desirable but required in today’s complex work environment, Parker warned. Bosses need a repertoire of conflict management skills. A good beginning is not to become too emotionally invested in a particular outcome and to keep parties focused on the business, not personalities.   

Training supervisors to deal with uncomfortable situations such as conflict will lead to greater productivity in the workplace.

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