When we think of workplace conflict, most of us probably cringe. No one likes to deal with conflict. But…conflict can actually be good. From conflict comes growth. The trick is to discover how to manage conflict so that it stays healthy and doesn’t go down the path of destruction. If we allow conflict to get out of hand, we can unknowingly create a toxic workplace and that is certainly something we want to avoid.
Here are some tips in how to manage conflict as well as how to recognize actions that are creating possible ‘unhealthy’ conflict.
Be very clear with your staff that you understand there will be conflict from time to time. Acknowledge that disagreements will occur but that you encourage others to view them as an opportunity for creative thinking, problem-solving, learning, and growth.
Make the statement that you believe conflict is healthy and natural and because we all have different personalities, ideas, and points of view, we are not going to always agree. Everyone has his or her own experience to bring to the table and we should be willing to hear the ideas that are brought forward. Having said this, it is also important to add that while there is opportunity for conflict, and flexibility with one’s ideas and viewpoints, there is no room for disrespect.
We all have very different personalities. This goes without saying. Some of us are stronger and more vocal than others but being clear about what is acceptable and not acceptable in the way we treat one another will help to avoid one person trampling over another and stifling another perspective. During meetings, be clear about time lines and ask for opinions of others.
While you will no doubt have a format or structure of some type to adhere to, it’s also important to be somewhat flexible when someone is offering a differing opinion. Give him or her time to speak their peace. We can learn by listening to others. This is a much more positive approach than shutting a person down and missing the chance to get a new idea.
Be open to ideas and be creative where possible. Maybe you can learn something new by encouraging new ideas. It’s very easy to stay to the same old – same old; but by opening up to new ways of thinking and new ideas, you will demonstrate the true value of conflict.
Nip it in the bud:
When you sense that conflict is moving from sharing differing viewpoints to building up walls of defence, respond immediately by setting the ground rules again concerning respect. Let everyone know how and where the conversation got off track and steer in back on course.
Make the environment safe:
Let everyone share ideas and let everyone know that he or she has a voice. Again, set the ground rules as to the respect everyone needs to share and encourage brain-storming and sharing of ideas. Let everyone know that the best way to find solutions is to feel free to speak – then create that environment.
Listen – and Watch:
Some conflict is nothing more than a miscommunication so seek clarification if you think that may be what is happening. The only way you can really discover this, is by listening and watching without judgement. Make sure that you remain silent as long as parties are not becoming hostile toward one another. Interrupt only if you need to seek clarity or insight. Guide the conversation to help find appropriate words (if indeed miscommunication is the problem). Be patient. Your goal is to ensure that conflict stays in the healthy zone. Lead by example – listen – keep eye contact, lean in closer when significant points are being made, nod your head when you understand and acknowledge feelings being shared (if appropriate).
How to tell when it’s going off track:
If you begin to notice that some in the group are not speaking at all, it could be that they don’t feel safe to speak. They may be avoiding conflict all together. This does not promote a team atmosphere and you will want to be sure that everyone has an opportunity to speak. If there are those who never have anything to say, there may be something deeper going on. You are not looking for complaints, but you do want inclusion. Summarize how you feel about conflict and sharing of ideas. Watch for those that tend to interrupt and take control. No one person should have more power in a group than another. If all parties are not free to talk, they will start to form ‘secret’ alliances away from the group and do their talking there.
When you notice that some parties are becoming quite argumentative right off the bat and defending their positions, make them aware (gently) that this is what they are doing. Encourage the team aspect of conflict and let all team members know that you are seeking win/win situations wherever possible. This will break down the defensive stance because you have acknowledged their position rather than reacted by becoming combative.
When people complain all the time, they are not looking for solutions. They are in a blaming position and it’s not productive. Complaints lead to negative feelings and can begin to plant the seeds of unhealthy conflict. Call the complainers out on their behaviours (again, respectfully) using “I’ language and let them know how their complaints are being interpreted.
Sometimes there is underlying conflict that has been around for a while and members of the team may feel that there is no point in thinking anything will ever change. There are those who have a voice, and those who don’t. This is where it can get difficult but if you persist and continue to encourage all team members to speak, it may slowly start to improve. When a group has become apathetic, there is a history behind it and it won’t correct itself over night. This is a type of conflict that may need to eventually be addressed individually – but if not addressed – will make life difficult for everyone and definitely impact production and teamwork success.
Praise in Public – Correct in Private:
If a situation becomes one in which there are those who ‘take over’ and quell the thoughts of others, be sure that you don’t openly berate them in front of their peers. Whenever there has been a breakthrough, give praise openly to encourage more of the same. When someone has stepped out of line, deal with it in terms of stopping the discussion from going off track; however, don’t scold anyone. If you need to speak to someone about his or her inappropriate behaviours, do so in private.
So, as you see; conflict is not necessarily bad – it’s when it has been allowed to get out of control or take a wrong path that it can become bad. As a leader, it is up to you to ensure that you keep a firm hold on the direction it moves. It takes practice – but managing conflict effectively can prove to be one of the best ways to positively affect growth as well as discovering new ideas and opportunities.
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