Screaming matches, barbed comments, nasty gossip, hurt feelings, toxic environments, shouty ALL CAPS emails, extended episodes of the silent treatment, or simple avoidance—these are some of the greatest hits of bad office conflict resolution. And sadly, they're about as well known to most of us as the tracks on a Beatles "Best Of" album.
But just because conflict is inevitable when colleagues of diverse backgrounds and temperaments are thrown together in a high stress work environment, doesn't mean disputes can't be dealt with constructively and in a way that reinforces rather than erodes morale at your company.
That's the message of entrepreneur Martina Welke on the Young Entrepreneur Council blog recently. Welke brings an unusual background to her life as a business owner. Before founding her networking events company, she worked as a court mediator trying to untangle highly emotional family and small claims disputes.
Her experience wading into these fraught conflicts provided her with unique insights into how business owners can proceed when conflict develops between colleagues. She now applies the basic principles of mediation to her work life and suggests other owners could benefit from doing the same. Her tips include:
People aren’t against you, they’re just for themselves.” In one of my first mediation courses, the instructor introduced this basic concept, and it fundamentally changed the way I perceive conflict. When engaged in a conflict, emotions run high and people generally defend their best interests, which often feels like an attack and perpetuates a rigidly antagonistic line of communication. A simple step back and consideration of the other party’s perspective reframes the entire conflict and can open up the pathway to resolution.
Listen for values, not interests. In our day-to-day conversations, we generally speak in terms of our interests: “I wish I could take more vacation days,” or “I deserve that promotion.” If we peel away a layer below those interests, however, there are always values motivating our interests. Uncovering those values is key to resolving complicated conflicts. The value behind wishing for more vacation could be “I value variety and change” or “I value relaxation and entertainment” or “I value appreciation for my hard work.” If the person requesting additional vacation time is really asking for appreciation, there might be better ways of fulfilling that need that don’t require weeks away from the office.
Make it safe. If one party feels threatened by the authority, aggression or some other advantage of the other, it’s a major barrier to authentic communication. Establishing ground rules that all parties agree to before beginning to work through a conflict helps to level the playing field and create a safe space. Clear rules about confidentiality, respectful language, and the potential consequences of reaching (or not reaching) an agreement provide a strong foundation for open communication — and a safeguard to fall back on if the discussion strays from those guidelines.
For more detail and examples of these strategies, as well as additional ideas, check out Welke's thought-provoking post. Or check out author Mike Myatt's five keys to effective workplace conflict resolution (to start with, he says, don't just try to avoid conflict).
Do you find conflicts sometimes get out of hand at your company? How do you handle them?