It's a strange paradox when you start creating a company "culture." Eventually, the  diverse values of the employees working within the organization will lead to conflicts. Leaders play an important role in solving these conflicts, and their actions often determine whether it will lead to positive or negative outcomes. 

Last month, furniture company Wayfair experienced a minor culture clash. An order was placed by a government contractor, BCFS--better known as the people behind some of the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) immigrant detention facilities. While Wayfair receives thousands of orders daily, this nearly $200,000 order stood out. One concerned employee recognized the customer and brought it to the attention of other staff.

These employees felt that their company shouldn't fill an order that supported something they didn't ethically believe in. After the employees appealed to management, and their list of requests was denied, they planned a walkout.

To help ease the conflict, Wayfair pledged to donate the $86,000 profits from the sale to the American Red Cross, as well as to not retaliate against any workers who chose to participate in the walkout. While Wayfair seems to have come away from the event positively, there may have been unintended negative consequences. Since the protest, another group has urged customers to boycott furniture store Home Depot for similar reasons. Additionally, employees at Wayfair are still working through their solution:

Overall, however, this is a great example of resolving conflict in a healthy way. Even though the employees' requests weren't met, this public event has drawn much more positive attention to their cause than the initial internal letter.

Here are a few ways to follow their example:

1. Be open.

Conflicts between management and employees are common and normal in every organization, but to lessen the frequency, it is important to understand the underlying reason for management's decisions.

To combat this, create a culture of transparency, which allows everyone an insight into key parts of the business and encourages open dialogue. This will allow your employees to be forthcoming with any concerns they have.

2. Create a safe space.

When a person feels threatened, their instinct is to lash out; this is how we normally approach conflict. Instead, try creating a "safe space" for people to talk freely--perhaps with a neutral third party.

In my role as facilitator, I help people resolve conflicts by starting with giving them permission to speak--which we often forget we have. I also suggest that they "leave their titles outside," which allows them to speak more freely than they may have otherwise.

3. Write everything down.

Once you've addressed a conflict, you need to know how to avoid the same situation in the future. Document the actions that everyone involved will take, and make particular note of any techniques that worked well in resolving the issue.

Having everything written out clearly as a reference point may help to facilitate--or prevent--future conversations.

4. Be empathetic.

While conflicts may seem difficult to handle, the best approach is to remain calm and express genuine interest in the other person's side. This can lead to creative problem solving, team building, and stronger relationships.

I've personally found that the best way to approach any conflict situation is with compassion and understanding. This often leads to radical changes, open communication, and constructive tension, which can be positive for the entire organization.

By approaching conflict as a normal and unavoidable feature of any organization, it is possible to prevent misunderstandings that can kill a company's culture.

Published on: Jul 11, 2019
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