Five strategies to avoid conflict in the workplace
What causes office clashes, and how do you resolve them?
Friday, October 04, 2013 7:00 AM
When was the last time you walked into your office’s kitchen, saw a dirty dish in the sink and cursed under your breath about the slobs you work with?
Or maybe you went to pour a cup of coffee, saw that the pot was empty and thought, “Why didn’t someone make more coffee?”
You’re not alone. Most workplaces have petty conflicts that can cause tension between employees.
Little annoyances, however, can grow into bigger conflicts when they are manifestations of deeper-rooted issues.
Here are five tips to understanding conflicts in your office and how to resolve them.
1. Understand the real source of conflict
“One of the most important things we talk about with conflict is the underlying interest,” said Rowena Crosbie, president of Tero International Inc. Tero, among many other things, trains business people on team-building and interpersonal skills.
“Generally, the issue at hand isn’t really the source of the conflict,” Crosbie said. “It may be the subject of the thing people are irritated about, but it’s usually something underneath ... where competing interests are being challenged.”
For example, she said, if you feel angry at someone for not emptying the dishwasher at work, the anger might stem from a feeling that the person isn’t pulling his or her weight in some other area or in general. Picking a fight over the dishwasher is how the feeling manifests itself.
Often, said John Garvey, co-founder of Proxymity LLC, which works to help businesses understand how their office space relates to their company culture, the real issue comes from a disconnect between what leadership says and what the actual culture is. People misunderstand the roles of their co-workers.
“So when you get upset with ‘Hank,’ who always comes in late, or ‘Sally,’ who never comes to company functions, it’s easy to focus on those things because you don’t understand the great value they do bring to the company,” he said.
2. Be aware of generational differences
Bob Olson, an architect who recently joined Proxymity’s five-member team, said he sees conflict emerge from generational differences.
Take technology, for example. A fresh-out-of-college co-worker might get frustrated with a baby boomer’s struggle or slow pace with some computer program. The boomer, in turn, might get frustrated with the technology in general, or with the young co-worker’s prowess in this area.
“You’ve got to be patient and understanding, and you’ve got to learn from each other,” Olson said.
One way management can help is to have a technology strategic plan – and make sure the company as a whole has a good understanding of when a new technology is really helpful, and when it just sounds like a good idea because it’s new.
He also notes that healthy companies learn to embrace the diversity between generations by communicating the value of those unique perspectives and encouraging mentoring both ways.
3. Recognize the consequences of conflict
An August Business Record survey asked readers how they’ve resolved conflicts in their office.
One response: “I found another job.”
Crosbie’s reaction: “If conflict is something that is not being handled well, we may lose our top performers.”
Unnecessary employee turnover is one negative consequence to an organization. Another is a loss of productivity, she said. Most people aren’t hard-wired to deal with conflict nonchalantly, so it tends to take up their time and energy at work. Petty conflicts may lead to co-workers harboring grudges or passive-aggressively avoiding each other.
4. Keep a level head in conflict
Here’s a statistic that Crosbie likes to use, crediting renowned therapist John Gottman: Ninety-six percent of conversations that start badly will end badly.
The best method in that kind of conversation, she said, is to apologize for the harsh start, take a minute to collect your thoughts, and try again.
Tero coaches people that “conflict done well means conflict done twice.” In other words, discuss the issue at the point of conflict, and then come back to it a couple of days later when cooler heads have prevailed.
Also important is to separate the problem from the person, Crosbie said.
“Say something that really honors the human relationship. For example, ‘We both really care about this outcome,’ ‘We both have a lot of respect for each other,’ (or) ‘We may not be looking at this thing through the same lens,’” she said.
5. Strategies to use
Figure out how to handle a conflict before the conflict occurs, Crosbie said. Every team is going to have conflicts, so it’s best to figure out an effective way to handle situations when everyone is in a good mood, not while caught up in a fight.
Realize, as a manager, that conflict is part of any organizational culture, whether you see it on the surface or not. The best thing a boss can do, said Crosbie, is encourage an environment that allows for open conversation, “for people to be allowed to disagree without being disagreeable.”
CEOs, department heads and supervisors have to set the organizational culture on how people in their office handle conflict, Crosbie said.
From an organizational level, Olson and Proxymity try to first understand the problems a client faces. Proxymity often uses what it learns about its clients to propose solutions, Olson said. “Where are the conflicts right now? Is it a refrigerator? Is it (something else)?” Olson said. “Get it all out in the open. Then we can sort through that.”
A business can try to set all the parameters to create an open environment, but sometimes it’s up to the employees to prevent conflict themselves. A good example, Olson points out, is a mess left behind on a workspace, in a conference room or in a kitchen. “You can’t change people, for the most part,” he said. “You can do the best you can to give them the tools they need, the environment they need, the communication they need.”
Our readers’ pet peeves
The Business Record recently asked its daily e-newsletter readers about the biggest conflicts in their office. Here are a few of the comments that made us take note:
“People at the highest and lowest levels who say ‘not my problem.’”
“People with a TONE to their emails and communication cause the most conflict.”
“Lack of consistency by employees.”
“People who take advantage of vacation, sick, PTO time.”