Unresolved workplace conflict is stressful for participants, their bosses and everyone in close proximity. Yet conflict is a common workplace reality — as human beings we naturally have different values, points of view or ways of communicating.
Most of us don’t choose our co-workers (anymore than we choose our annoying relatives), yet success in today’s team environment requires us to find a way to resolve differences.
Let’s start by making the distinction between healthy and unhealthy conflict. Healthy debate on workplace teams often leads to better strategy and decisions and should be encouraged. Being accountable on a team may mean that others will challenge you to do a better job or follow through on a commitment — these are not reasons to head for the human resources department. Unhealthy conflict is very different — it interferes with people’s ability to do their work successfully and, in the extremes, involves harmful or abusive behaviors.
The challenge for most managers is knowing when and how to intervene. Avoiding it won’t solve anything. Unresolved conflict just festers and resurfaces. In extreme cases, managers need to draw a well-defined boundary and lay out consequences for unacceptable behaviors. Individuals who contribute to a hostile work environment must be dealt with swiftly and decisively. As the boss, it is your responsibility to establish an environment that enables your people to be successful. Any kind of negative escalating conflict that is disruptive to the work environment warrants an intervention.
Most successful interventions involve bringing the parties together with a mediator to discuss and commit to making the changes necessary to resolve the conflict.
Here are some intervention guidelines in resolving unhealthy conflict.
- Start by establishing ground rules for acceptable behavior such as:
One person speak at a time. Speak for yourself and not for others. No personal attacks or put-downs.
- Allow each an opportunity to share their stories so each understands the other’s experience. There are two sides to every story — none of us views the same event, interaction or situation in exactly the same way. Encourage both parties to identify what is theirs to “own” in the conflict (i.e., How did they contribute to the situation?)
- Clarify job descriptions, roles and behavior expectations. Often the source of workplace conflict is overlapping or misunderstood roles or “turf.” Establish single-point (one-person) accountability for responsibilities, tasks and results. A common denominator for most workplace conflict is disagreement around “shared” expectations — some version of, “That is your responsibility, not mine,” or, “If you would only do your job!” This typical turf war is often the result of a gap between what one participant believes should be and what he or she perceives is being delivered (or not) by the other. Bosses often need to clarify turf and responsibilities to help close that gap. Get participants clear on whose responsibility is what by when.
- Ask participants to identify what specific actions they would like from the other to resolve the disagreement. For example: “I would like responsibility for all client communication,” or, “I want Joe to submit his report to me by 5 p.m. each Friday.” A tip: Help them identify what they want more of, less of, stopped or started.
- Create accountability for a plan to move forward. Participants should walk away with shared (preferably written) agreement about who will be responsible for what in the future. Plan to meet again to check on how things are working.
If you aren’t comfortable attempting this kind of mediation or if the conflict has gone on a long time and/or the stakes and emotions are high, it may be time to bring in someone like me as outside help — someone with conflict resolution expertise who can serve as an objective third party and with nothing vested in the outcome of the conflict. Outside experts are often successful where internal resources fail (human resources people are not often seen as being impartial) to bring real or sustained changes.
Expert facilitators, like me, can help:
- Identify and clarify the “real” issues.
- Regulate the conflict with a process that brings order and safety to participants.
- Interrupt a frequently escalating cycle.
- Help participants develop new and effective behaviors for handling differences moving forward.
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