Workplace conflict is most likely an inevitable part of business and the causes are many and varied. What is consistent however is the impact which unresolved conflict can have on the workplace. Resolved quickly, the impact can be minimised but left unresolved, conflict can lead to staff losses and even legal claims against employers.
Author Carter McNamara, of Basics of Conflict Management, defines conflict as “when two or more values, perspectives and opinions are contradictory in nature and haven’t been aligned or agreed about”. Sometimes conflict can be a positive force within an organization, while other times it is a negative force. An example of conflict as a positive force is that the resolution may lead the company to constructive problem solving. It may also lead people to find ways of changing how they do things or view themselves and others. The resolution process can bring a positive change within an organization. However, conflict can also have negative effects. For example, conflict may lower morale or lessen productivity. It also may negatively affect the mental well-being of employees and cause stress.
Business owners and managers must be sensitive to the consequences of conflict. These consequences range from negative outcomes to include loss of employees, low quality of work, and stress, to positive outcomes such as personal satisfaction, high quality of work, and increased commitment. Many businesses in the past have simply chosen to ignore or avoid the conflict in the hope it will resolve itself. Avoidance is a non-assertive, non-co-operative way of dealing with a situation. It can be useful if the conflict is not urgent but avoidance can be debilitating to the communication process within an organisation.
The trick therefore is to develop strategies which enable staff to resolve conflict with minimal disruption and maximum result. Some employers choose to develop an internal process which staff can access whilst others choose to engage external processes and assistance so as to ensure objective and rapid response to a conflict situation. Sometimes having a simple process which management can implement will allow team members to face issues, understand the cause of conflict and then work on resolutions to it.
I was recently asked by a client to assist in resolving some conflict in the workplace between two management team members. It was an excellent opportunity to engage my Wall theory of conflict resolution. It is a simple four step process which when properly implemented can have quite amazing results. Here is an overview of the process. The trick as with many of these processes is to make sure it is conducted in a structured manner which gives equal consideration to both parties, that each are fully supported and that some clear guidelines are in place.
Step 1: Name the Wall – In order to resolve conflict we need first to identify what the actual conflict is. Often it involves a loss of trust to some degree but it is necessary to identify what the true cause of the conflict is. It is important to realise that it is often much deeper than someone’s conduct. I liken it to an iceberg. The conduct of one party or the other is often simply the tip of the iceberg and the effects or emotional impact is what lies beneath. Once you have identified the true conflict you can start the process of knocking the wall down.
Step 2: Identify the Bricks – The wall of conflict is made up of a number of bricks (incidents). Whilst you don’t want to dwell on the individual incidents it is nonetheless important to get them out in the open so that each can understand what actions have contributed to the conflict. This is of course conducted in a blame free environment but naming the incidents is the first step in re-establishing trust.
Step 3: This is about tearing down the wall. Ask each party to explain what their expectations are. Get them to ask each other “What were your expectations of me?” Finally explore how each of the incidents referred to in step 2 could have been done differently and in a way which would have had a better outcome.
Step 4: Finally you can work on rebuilding, but not a wall, this time a bridge. By being clear about what each other expected in the first place, what they expect from here and determining how individual incidents could have been handled better, you are well on the way to resolving the conflict and establishing a sustainable process for future relationships.
Engaging this process will address the conflict and give you a solid opportunity to resolve it. The one certain point is that hoping it will simply go away is hoping in vain.
Following these simple five steps will facilitate lasting culture change within your business. Practically it is difficult to ask your team to join you on your business journey if they don’t have an understanding of the ultimate destination. A simple analogy I like to use is this – if I came to your place in my car and asked you to jump in and come for a drive with me, the first question you would ask is: “Where are we going?” And yet that is exactly what so many businesses expect their team to do on a daily basis; to jump into the workplace without a clear understanding of where the journey will take them. Take some time to engage with your team and watch the results they deliver!