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The One Trick to Avoiding Conflicts in the Workplace

Subjective work processes are the root of all evil in the workplace.

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We join the conflict as the heat rises:


"So, I always get the work that falls on Sunday because I'm single and not religious?" accused Sarah.

"I didn't say either of those. You don't get all of the Sunday work, but you often accept it because you don't have plans and you are a good team player," rebutted the back-pedaling boss.

"Why doesn't Greg ever get the lousy work and the Sunday assignments?"

This conflict didn't get any better as it progressed. We can all relate to feeling like we aren't being treated fairly or that the boss is playing favorites. Does that mean that the boss is evil? Maybe, but that thought just keeps us from identifying the real villain here.

Related: 3 Ways to Use Conflict to Strengthen Your Startup

Subjective work processes are the root of all evil in the workplace.

In our example, the boss handed out work assignments as he believed the situation required, taking into account whatever circumstances were occurring at the time. The "process" of assigning work and/or schedules was subjective -- open to interpretation.

Scheduling people to work, giving work assignments, paying people and promoting people are all examples of work processes -- steps we take to get something done. Every time a work process is subjective, as in the example, it invites conflict and other unpleasant evils. Think about the conflicts you have had in the workplace. It may have been a conflict over how a task was, or should have been, accomplished. Maybe it was how you or someone else's performance was evaluated. It may have been over pay, recognition or benefits.

Related: Here's How to Gain Respect Instead of Making an Enemy

Conflict in the workplace not only takes its human toll, but the financial impact is staggering. This CPP Global Human Capital Report states that U.S. employees spend almost three hours per week dealing with conflicts.

Whatever the conflict, drill down to the root. Chances are high that at the root there is a work process that was left open to subjectivity. That is an invitation for conflict -- either verbal or the kind that just eats a person alive until they are just a shell of a human putting in time at work.

What do we do?

Well, we search and destroy that subjectivity, of course. It hides itself in its two favorite plain-sight places at work, knowing people won't even look because it has always been there and is just accepted as normal. It hides in fuzzy communications and in the steps of work processes. Your job is to translate the "fuzzies" and objectify the work processes.

"Fuzzy" communications are directions, expectations or outcomes that are open to interpretation. "Be more empathic," "be a team player," "take some initiative," "provide better customer service" or "you need better skills" are all examples of fuzzies. Most workplaces are full of them. And poor communication in the workplace has steep costs.

Related: How to 'Win' an Argument Without Losing the Relationship

Here is how you translate the fuzzies:

As soon as a fuzzy leaves the lips of someone, have this conversation with them: "You're right. I do need to _________________ (insert the fuzzy). When you observe me ________________________ (being a team player/having strong communication skills/whatever the fuzzy), what are you observing me do?"

Keep them talking. You simply make a list of the performances they describe. Take the necessary time to complete that conversation. It may be difficult and take some time, but it's a worthwhile investment. The result will be a list of observable performances that define that particular fuzzy. This also works with any "soft skill."

Using the example of being a team player, the list resulting from that conversation might include:

  • Arrive at team meetings on time.
  • Volunteer for assignments given to the team.
  • Complete assignments by the deadline.
  • Don't roll your eyes when team members speak.

The list would continue. The point is that the previous fuzzy is now translated into observable performances that would be difficult to interpret differently.

Related: Managing Conflict Is Essential to Success

Objectify work processes: The next time you find yourself in a disagreement at work, pause to identify the work process about which you are disagreeing. To objectify that work process:

  • List the steps of that process.
  • Identify the find steps that are missing or that contain fuzzy language.
  • Make the revisions to the process.

For example, earlier in the article when Sarah and her boss's conversation was escalating, the conflict was rooted in the process the boss was using to make work assignments. It was subjective; there was no defined process. There were no steps to list. It depended on judgments the boss made in various situations. DANGER! DANGER! Of course the boss will run into problems when the process is that subjective. Objectifying the process could be as simple as alternating the weekend work in turn among each team member.

The point is to have a process that is transparent. Team members may not like the process, but it is the same process for everyone.

Is it really that simple? Yes -- not easy, but it's that simple. As you start noticing all of the subjectivity you will also notice that you can do something about it. You will find it is simply making common practice.

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