Situation 1: Jeff and Maria are co-workers at a company that lets employees set their own hours. Jeff usually saunters into the office about 10 a.m., while Maria is there promptly at 9 a.m. She often has to take care of Jeff's customers due to his lateness. He rationalizes that all is OK because he stays until 6 p.m. to "make up his time." However, his clients usually stop calling at 5 p.m. Maria is angry with Jeff and becomes irritable and frustrated with him. She takes it out on him in daily interactions and sometimes even in staff meetings. Clearly, their conflict is an issue.
Situation 2: Allen and Leo are both managers. In almost every staff meeting, they bicker. They try to cut each other off, they criticize each other's comments, and they waste time that could be devoted to essential business matters.
In both of these situations, conflict results in a waste of time, energy and productivity. Are business situations like these rare? Or is this kind of conflict exclusive to large companies?
Hardly. Conflict is all around us, and it occurs in every office to varying degrees and with almost every employee.
So what is conflict?
If you ask the average person, the responses could range from a negative situation to an extreme dislike for another person. At the same time, others could define it as anger, distrust, antagonism or simply something they dislike. These are all negative views, and I find them too narrow.
I suggest that conflict does not need to be characterized as just negative. In fact, it can be neutral or even positive. Conflict can simply be defined as tension.
Tension can be good, bad or neutral. Just because two people disagree doesn't mean their disagreement is negative or poisonous; it can simply be a difference of opinion. However, left unaddressed and allowed to fester or grow, that neutral tension can become negative and possibly harmful. Then everyone, including the organization, suffers.
Whatever definition is used, we can agree that most people don't like conflict. Indeed, they go out of their way to avoid it. In many cases, people view conflict in terms of arguments, anger, hurt feelings or being yelled at. And no one likes those situations. As a result, when conflict arises, most people will steer clear of it or pretend it doesn't exist. Nonetheless, it is real, and it may become problematic.
So how should you deal with conflict in your workplace?
- Address It Directly. When conflict arises, you need to raise the issue with the parties involved. You want to emphasize the need for your employees to address it. At that time, you can explain that negative feelings and thoughts can be handled in an appropriate manner that can actually make them positive and productive.
- Listen to Both Sides. Speak with each party separately to gain their perspective on what the tension is all about. Make sure that along with any emotional information, you discuss specific facts or events that led up to or inflamed the situation.
- Bring Both (All) Parties Together. Allow them to share their version of the events or issue. Often, this step will elicit issues or facts that the other party was unaware of.
- Find Common Ground. This is very important, because often each side has some concern the other party can agree with, and this will become the foundation that enables you to bridge the gap that separates the parties involved.
- Encourage Compromise. For the sake of working together, each person must be willing to give in a little. This step may take a while because the sides are already firmly entrenched in their own viewpoint or version of what should happen to resolve the issue. When this is accomplished, everyone will feel a little better.
- Confront Negative Feelings. The feelings and thoughts that arose during the conflict stage have to be worked out. Unless this happens to everyone's satisfaction, the problem may go away for the moment, but the hard feelings or thoughts will persist, and then a repeat conflict might occur.
- Be Positive. Resolve to address future conflicts in a positive manner. The model, of course, would be similar to how this one is being resolved.
Based on the experience the employees just practiced, they should now have the skills and a process in place to turn negative conflict into positive tension that propels them to deal with future problems.
Dr. David G. Javitch is an organizational psychologist, leadership specialist, and President of Javitch Associates in Newton, Mass. Author of How to Achieve Power in Your Life, Javitch is in demand as a consultant for his skills in assessment, coaching, training and facilitating groups and retreats.