What happens when you throw dozens of people with wildly varying personalities, values, goals, and perspectives, into a confined space, and then order them to communicate, work together, pull in the same direction and generally get along?
Well, it’s not hard to come up with a qualified guess: conflict.
Conflict in the workplace is both natural and unavoidable, which means we need to be prepared to deal with it when it arises.
Of course, conflict can occur in a variety of ways, from simple interpersonal ones with peers, with your manager/employee, or even between/teams. Who’s at odds with one another and why isn’t necessarily that important, as resolving conflict is always possible. As long as you keep a clear head and execute a simple strategy, most issues will turn out to be minor bumps in the road once you’ve got past them.
So what should we do to minimise the fall-out of conflict and move past it as quickly as possible?
Don’t ignore it and don’t let it fester.
In our book, this is by far the most important aspect of dealing with a conflict. If you do, it’s likely the effect will spread far wider than if it would have been dealt with straight away. The way you deal with it very much depends on your position in the workplace and the scope of the conflict.
If it’s an interpersonal issue, then try to consider why the conflict arose in the first place, and try to consider it from the antagonist’s point of view. The next step is to try to defuse the situation by talking about it. In many cases, this is as far as it needs to go, but if the issue is more serious, you may need to involve a manager to find a way forward.
If the issue is larger than just two people not seeing eye to eye, then the approach needs to be different and is best handled by management or senior management.
Find out what the root of the problem is.
It goes without saying that you won’t be able to resolve a conflict if you don’t know what it’s about. Start with interviewing people involved, making sure each side is represented equally.
Sometimes this exercise can lead to an easy resolution that wasn’t obvious beforehand, and if nothing else, the fact that people are being listened to and their views considered can have a positive effect.
In some cases, it can even help the organisation by considering the company culture, how people interact with one another and how everyone could work better together, leading to improvements much larger than just overcoming the conflict itself.
Find common ground and agree on a way forward.
It’s unusual to find a situation in which the parties are so completely at odds with one another that no common ground can be found. In your mediation, draw out the details on what it could be, and focus on it. Areas that offer a good possibility of consensus are the definition of the problem, the worst case scenario, and suggestions for small steps forward.
The solution, or resolution, is ideally a plan of action that both parties agree on, but it may not always be possible to be 100% equitable. One way of dealing with this perceived imbalance is to emphasise the positive impact on the organisation, and create buy-in for the idea that ‘we’ll do what’s best for the organisation’. It’s usually easier to get behind a resolution to a conflict if the main beneficiary is a neutral party.
Additionally, involve both parties in the problem-solving process as much as you can – if there’s a sense of ownership of the solution, the chance of success is much higher.
See conflict as opportunities.
And finally, virtually every conflict carries the potential for a learning opportunity, whether on a personal level or company-wide, so embracing conflict as a catalyst for progression is not such a bad idea.
Every conflict tends to find at its root some degree of miscommunication, differing personal perspectives, differences of opinions and resource scarcity. By addressing any of these areas, on a company level, you’re not just looking to resolve the issue at hand, but also mitigate any future conflicts. Handling conflict the right way will build a culture of dealing with them in a direct and confident manner, which is likely to have a positive effect on the work culture and improve the organisational competence in dealing with similar issues.
But all that said, perhaps the best strategy of them all is to not have a conflict arise in the first place. As the old adage goes, prevention is better than cure.