Workplace Conflict

Monday June 13, 2016 comments

Workplace conflict. It happens. We like to think that time will resolve things. Time doesn’t heal; it buries. Left unresolved, issues fester and become apparent later. And when they do it’s usually worse. The biggest mistake most people make is not to try to resolve things. The next biggest mistake people make is to try to assert their rights and force an apology. Ask yourself, “Do I want to be right, or do I want to be effective?” They aren’t always the same thing.

When workplace conflict does happen - particularly when the offense is not that egregious - there are some basic steps that either party can initiate to help bring resolution and to help restore team unity:

  • Consider Meeting Offsite. Getting out of the office and going to a local coffee shop takes the formality out of it and can be a little disarming. People often react better in public places because they don't know who is listening. Or watching.
  • Lead With Humility. No one has to grovel, be subservient, take responsibility for stuff that isn't theirs, etc., but humility makes things easier. If you ever watched the Princess Bride - it's like the chocolate coating Miracle Max put on the pill for makes it all go down easier. Take a humble tone, stance, etc., and own your part.
  • Forgive Beforehand. When we're offended, we're not at our best. When we’re offended, the other party has power over us. When we’re offended we're tied to an event or an issue in the past. Forgive and you can focus back on the future. Forgive and you get your power back. Forgive and you can get back to being effective.
  • Don't Expect or Force an Apology. Most people will own their part - if they don't feel defensive. If they get defensive, you'll get excuses and blame. Often that's because the other party feels like that's what they're getting. It doesn’t really do any good to guilt someone into apologizing because a feigned response won’t produce a change in behavior.
  • Make Effectiveness Your Goal. That could mean you go down one path and find it isn't working so you try a different one because you have an end game in mind - which is how to work better together to reach organizational goals. And it could also mean that if talking today isn't working, you table it until a better time because you want to be effective, not just have your time to vent.
  • State the Issue. You don't want to condone behavior that isn’t acceptable to you. But how you say what you say could be the difference between it being heard and acted on, and the other party feeling defensive, guilty, or distant. You can state the issue without blame or judgment. And you can state it in a way that doesn't have you taking the responsibility for it all, or getting the other party defensive to where nothing is resolved.
  • State Your Goal. What you really want is a shared set of expectations that you both agree on, a shared commitment to meeting those expectations, and a shared understanding of what to do when the expectations aren't met. Expectations won't always be met - and you want each other to know that you understand that. Unrealistic expectations aren't a lot of fun.

A conversation could go something like this:

"Yesterday got uncomfortable and I was bothered by how it all went. I came off offended and it wasn't me at my best. I'm sorry for that and I don't want to have a tension in our relationship... we've got an organization to run. The reason I want to talk today is to discuss ways that the two of us can communicate and work more effectively together. I would like to work towards a shared set of expectations that we both believe is reasonable and in the best interest of the success of the organization."

Hopefully, the other party will follow the lead, own their part, apologize, and have the same goal of being more effective. If so, both parties will be on their way to a productive discussion. If not - even if the other party laughs and takes no responsibility – the initiating party should still take the high road, refocus back on effectiveness, and see if some productive discussion is possible. And if it's clear that it’s not, table it and try another day when the conditions, emotions, and blood sugar are better. Don’t fail to circle back, because silence can be interpreted as tacit approval of the very behavior that created a conflict. Where there is impasse, consider using a 3rd party to help facilitate a discussion. There are a different set of skills and steps to take for more critical confrontations, particularly when it involves a performance or behavior discussion between a supervisor and team member.

Think of workplace conflicts as weeds in the garden of your organization. Deal with them when they're small; it's a much bigger job when they're allowed to grow.


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