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Embrace conflict for better outcomes: 4 steps to conflict resolution

Conflict is common in workplaces.  Employees have issues with each other.  Departments point fingers at other departments.  There’s no stopping conflict.  In fact, conflict helps organizations grow.  If everyone nods their head to what anyone else says, there’s little room for moving from status quo.  Very low conflict is a sign that people are afraid of speaking their mind- a lack of psychological safety Worse, it could be a sign that employees don’t care enough.  We fight for the things we care about.  The best strategies are usually developed when people challenge each other.

Conflict is great.  Not something to be swept under the carpet.  Yet, left unresolved, there’s nothing worse.  So, how do leaders resolve conflict?  This article looks at 4 steps to resolving conflict in an organization.

Step 1:  Assess ‘conflict temperature’

Mark Gerzon in Leading Through Conflict categorizes conflicts into two kinds- Hot conflict and Cold conflict.  Hot conflict is when people are shouting, waving their arms around, are using threatening or derogatory language.  Any conflict where the opponents are not in control of their emotions are hot conflicts.  Cold conflict is when the parties appear unemotional but withdrawn, rejecting conversation and passive-aggressive.  Often, cold conflict is mistaken for no-conflict.  To differentiate, look out for cues during team meetings or in any professional setting.  If two teams or individuals seem to find ways to avoid communicating with each other, chances are there’s an ongoing cold conflict.

Step 2: Bring ‘conflict temperature’ to warm

For conflict to be resolvable and productive, it needs to be at the right temperature.  Trying to resolve a conflict when it’s too hot is an invitation to take the conflict into dangerous waters.  And once it gets there, its difficult to reset the situation back to normal.  It’s difficult to salvage.  So, the best thing to do when dealing with hot conflict is to separate the fighters and give them time to cool down.  And resolve it when the temperature is warm.  Don’t wait too long though- you don’t want the hot conflict to transform into a cold conflict.

When dealing with cold conflict, you need to heat things up a little!  Get the parties involved together in the same room.  And get them to talk.

Step 3: Surface issues

Once conflict is warm, it’s important to get all the issues on the table.  And that happens only through open and honest communication.  If it’s been a hot conflict, its important to understand what triggered the strong emotions.  If it’s been a cold conflict, encourage people to communicate what has made them withdraw.

The most common issues which will surface include

  • Role conflict or role ambiguity– By far the most common, if an employee (or Department) isn’t crystal clear on their and other employee (or Department) responsibilities, it’s a ripe situation for conflict. “We didn’t meet our goals since Person X didn’t do their work properly.”

Some organizations have a “everybody does everything” policy.  While that may work for critical projects, in most other cases it doesn’t work.  Knowing what’s expected of us and others in an organization is crucial.  Hence, clear function and job descriptions are important to allow us to perform our best.

  • Workload– If there’s high workload, there’s stress. And stress begets conflict.  So, make sure people don’t have too much work dumped onto them.  And don’t give conflicting priorities to one or multiple employees.
  • Power– There are many who crave power and authority. Conflict raises its head when an employee with authority feels threatened.  Or an employee seeking more power tries to side-line others.  While a little bit of competition is great, the leader needs to draw the line.  The trick with resolving conflicts based on power-grab is to see what’s fair and in the best interest of the conflicting parties and the organization.  Don’t play favourites!

Step 4: Sustain warm environment

Remember to keep things warm in the organization.  The best way is to ensure that people are talking to each other regularly.  And not only through email.  Encourage face-to-face interactions.  What’s also important is to build a culture which encourages feedback.  It might result in some conflict.  But remember: Conflict is good!

Keep giving and asking for feedback.  And set systems which make feedback between and across employees/departments the norm.  Something as simple as a weekly meeting works wonders.

Closing thoughts

While conflict is good, set some ground rules.  For example, nobody can shout, whatever the circumstance.  Use humour, but mainly to de-escalate a hot conflict.  Else, humour can divert from the important communication which needs to happen.  Everyone might leave with a smile on their face, but the cold conflict may continue.

Most importantly, don’t exploit conflict.  No encouraging conflict to get your work done.  That may work in the short run but wears everyone out over a period.

What’s your experience with conflict in your workplace? 

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