Imagine yourself in a heated argument with an instructor over an ongoing dispute. You both storm away without a resolution and for weeks afterward, the instructor refuses to take your calls. Your frustration mounts.
Unproductive workplace conflict arises when appropriate communication breaks down. The result is wasted work time; a drop in motivation, productivity and quality of service; employee attrition; loss of authority; a stressful work environment; and even direct damage to the company.
The best approach to workplace conflict is to avoid unproductive quarreling altogether. “Conflict prevention relies on good communication and organizational structure,” says Daniel Dana, the author of Conflict Resolution. He suggests these four strategies for eliminating strife.
1. Address Conflict Early. Your first reaction to a scuffle may be to distance yourself, but doing so allows the unresolved problem to fester. “Distinguish between a permanent withdrawal, when you walk away with no intention to reengage, and a tactical withdrawal, when you agree to have a dialogue once tempers cool down,” says Dana.
2. Avoid a One-Sided Solution. As a manager, you are in a position to call the shots; but Dana suggests that encouraging two sides to come together to problem-solve builds long-term cooperation.
3. Take Risks. Offer a conciliatory gesture, such as apologizing, taking responsibility for your role in the problem or expressing positive feelings. “Shift from a tit-for-tat bargaining mentality to a win-win collaborative mentality,” advises Dana.
4. Respect Others’ Peace-Making Gestures. Avoid the temptation to exploit a counterpart’s conciliatory gesture, Dana says, for example by saying,
“Aha, so you admit it’s your fault!”
Sometimes conflicts brew despite your best intentions. Following a clear set of guidelines will help you manage these scuffles before they escalate into real crises.
Mediating Conflict Between Two Employees
Janet, your yoga teacher, needs a warm room during her class, so she turns up the heat. David, who teaches a class immediately after Janet’s class, needs the studio much cooler. But if David turns the thermostat down at the start of his class, it takes 20 minutes for the temperature to drop. If Janet lowers the heat too soon, her students get chilly during final relaxation. So David has been lowering the temperature himself while Janet is still teaching.
Decide to Mediate. Your first step is to decide that a third-party mediator is necessary. In making this decision, ask yourself if the situation is resolvable. Working on a satisfactory solution is fruitless if neither party in the conflict can control the situation.
Hold Preliminary Meetings. Dana advises holding separate meetings first to hear each person’s complaint and explain your role as an impartial participant. Your goal is to help your employees negotiate, not to take sides or make decisions for them.
Preliminary meetings also help you determine why the conflict matters from a business perspective. “The most common managerial error during workplace mediation is failing to define the business problem,” Dana explains. “The manager should be concerned with workplace performance rather than how employees feel about each other. The purpose of the mediation is to solve the business problem, not to address the employees' feelings. Making this distinction simplifies the process and draws the boundary between workplace mediation (an appropriate managerial function) and psychological counseling (an inappropriate one).”
Conduct a Three-Way Meeting. This meeting should be held in a private, neutral space where you won’t be interrupted. Gather around a table, suggests Dana, with you sitting at the head rather than beside one of the employees, to avoid giving the visual impression that you are aligning with one person over the other. Dana adds that this arrangement “also conveys that you are in charge of the process of the meeting, even though the disputants are in charge of finding a solution to the problem.”
Keep the negotiators engaged in the process of effective resolution. Make sure each person is given the chance to clarify his or her position while the other listens. If you notice one person withdrawing from the discussion, describe what you observe, then wait for a response. For example, say, “David, I notice you haven't said anything for a few minutes. What's going on?" Look for a breakthrough—a mutual shift from a polarized me-against-you confrontation to a cooperative us-against-the-problem attitude.
Work Out a Deal. The agreement should balance who gives and who takes and make both negotiators feel they got something out of the resolution. Write down the specifics of the new deal or behavior to avoid further miscommunication. For example, you could write, “Janet will turn down the thermostat to 68 degrees 10 minutes before her class ends to allow the studio to cool off for David’s class. She will ask her students to bring blankets to class for final relaxation. David will use one of the facility’s fans to cool the room for his class. He will not adjust the thermostat before Janet’s class has ended.”
Finally, check that the resolution works. “Your final step is to hold a follow-up meeting to support the deal you reached,” says Dana.
If you are in conflict with a colleague or an employee, you could either call on an impartial mediator or try self-mediation, where you act as both a negotiator and the mediator.
Most of the steps for self-mediation are the same as those for managerial mediation: Plan when and where to talk, keep the conversation civil, and clarify your deal in writing. There are, however, a few important distinctions.
Step Outside Your Office. Your office or a room you use often might be considered neutral ground during a managerial mediation, but it won’t be for self mediation.
Listen First. Dana recommends opening the discussion by verbalizing your appreciation for the other person’s willingness to meet and expressing optimism about finding a solution that will satisfy both of you. Then commence the dialogue by listening. Invite the other person to speak by making a statement like, “Help me understand your position.”
Managing Diverging Viewpoints
When discussed in a respectful way, converging viewpoints in the workplace can spawn creativity, new ideas and more effective procedures. The trick lies in managing disputes with appropriate strategies to ensure that discussion remains constructive.