“Conflict is a good thing. It is part of a healthy workplace.”
My former co-worker, Dave, used to say that. That was a lifetime ago, in a job well in the rearview mirror. He believed in getting issues out in the open and hashing out differences as much as possible, ready or not.
To say that he was not always popular with management, or some colleagues, would be an understatement. No one questioned his work ethic, but his brusque approach to problem-solving did not always go smoothly and caused interpersonal relationship issues between himself and his co-workers.
We all know a “Dave.” Maybe he works with or for you. If you are looking around and do not see him but recognize the sentiment, you may be the office’s Dave.
Dave does have a point. When people hear the word “conflict,” they frequently think of negative connotations, because the conflict often has hit a breaking point. What or who breaks is uncomfortable and scary.
Unresolved conflict causes stress and anxiety. In time, that stress and anxiety build up, weighing you down and filling the spaces around you to the point of suffocation.
That tension continues to build until the valve bursts: the stress and anxiety start venting everywhere. Or worse, the friction leads to an explosion. In unresolved conflict situations, this is inevitable: pressure builds and, sooner or later, will release.
But successful conflict resolution can strengthen relationships and jump-start innovative problem-solving between peers. If you have the choice between unresolved conflict (leading to stress and strife) and successful conflict resolution, the clear winner is successful conflict resolution.
Why, then, do people wait to reach that breaking point?
They do so for the same reason they wait to file their taxes. In addition to standard procrastination, some personality traits make people want to avoid a stressor for as long as possible, hoping the situation will resolve itself.
Sometimes it does. When this approach fails, though, things eventually get messy.
Here are the three primary steps towards successful conflict resolution:
- Identify the conflict:
Two main problems tend to draw people into conflict—goals/structural issues and personal/relational issues.
With goals and structural issues, a disagreement exists on what should be done and how to do it. This can be anything from disagreeing how solve the problem to a specific concern about staff and resource distribution. An example of the latter is when our proverbial Dave was frustrated with another department that was not meeting deadlines. Dave did not know, understand or empathize with the fact that the department was working on other projects, with different timetables than his own. This resulted in the work he needed finished not being prioritized. For a fast-paced multitasker like Dave, understanding methodical people who complete one job before moving to the next can be especially frustrating.
Personal or relational problems occur when people just do not get along. Although they might never be best friends, co-workers need to find a way to manage a professional working relationship. Dave rubbed some people the wrong way, resulting in conflicts that could have been avoided with insight into his and his colleagues’ behavioral traits.
- Define the conflict:
What is this conflict about?
Discussing a disagreement’s background to uncover its roots can be helpful. The process can provide insight into where thought processes diverged, and how to bring them back together.
This stage of conflict resolution is often where you may discover the conflict is more than just the surface argument, but instead comprises layers of issues built up over time.
- Resolve the conflict:
Each conflict is unique, as are the participants, and will have various strategies on how to best deal with the situation.
According to the Thomas- Kilmann model of conflict, there are five conflict resolution modes: avoiding, competing, accommodating, compromising and collaborating.
The avoiding and competing modes do not necessarily result in conflict resolution. With these, the loudest voice in the room wins, and other voices retreat or become silent. Although the parties might move on, nothing is accomplished. The conflict’s root will remain and resurface later.
Dave was a competitor. He wanted to be right and would go to great lengths to tell you he was. At the time, I was more likely to avoid the situation altogether. My approach was childhood logic: if you put a blanket over your head, you cannot see the problem, and it cannot see you.
The accommodating mode poses a similar problem. To keep the peace, one party completely backs down, allowing the other to “win.” The accommodating party might participate more than the avoiding party, but both methods promote and are based on someone winning and losing. The losing side typically is concerned with harmony, so their thoughts and opinions are often not expressed or heard.
Used together, compromise and collaboration are the ideal healthy conflict resolution modes. They rely on both parties acting in good faith and coming to a resolution without needing an arbiter to step in and make an executive decision.
Controlled compromise is sometimes needed to proceed with a project, but this approach should be a last resort. Managers can act as mediators, but successful conflict resolution means both parties involved can move forward without an authority figure making the final judgment.
Compromise involves the parties coming together and both giving a little. Collaboration involves working together to find a way that allows both to contribute to the process. Sometimes resolutions can incorporate ideas from both sides, and new ideas arise during the discussion.
Compromise and collaboration recognize that conflict is an opportunity to discuss a situation. Perhaps the parties can clarify any misinformation and, in turn, discover a better data delivery system. Learning each other’s viewpoint, while acknowledging the dispute, involves a shared love and pride for the work being done. This can establish a stronger bond.
Ultimately, conflict resolution is about understanding people, which is where a behavioral assessment comes in. The assessment itself is a conversation about the push and pull between conflicting attributes that make up a personality. Each section represents opposing traits. By understanding where team members are on that particular spectrum, you can more easily predict potential conflict areas.
Dave focused on personal advancement. He liked working on commission, where his paycheck was determined by his ability to sell. However, I was focused on team needs and trying to be helpful to enjoy the security of a steady income. Dave was far more social and seemed to recharge by being around people. I could do that but needed some time alone to reflect and get back up to speed.
Dave had multiple projects going simultaneously, whereas I needed to focus on what was in front of me. He was someone who thought about the big picture and believed that mistakes were opportunities. That last characteristic might have been where we had the most problems. I tended to drill down into details to get it right the first time. As polar opposites in so many ways, we had disagreements. Looking back, if we had used a behavioral assessment tool, with a trained analyst’s support, our situation would have gone much smoother.
When you understand your respective Dave’s tendencies and motivations, you are in a much better position to transform conflict from nonproductive to productive. You can resolve the potential stress that arises. By understanding all parties’ strengths, challenges and communication styles, finding compromise and collaboration becomes easier.
With the right tools, understanding can be the greatest change and growth catalyst in your workplace. Rather than just getting the conflict out there, as Dave liked to do, you have the tools to work through disagreements together so everyone feels heard. That way, conflict no longer is the valve that explodes, but instead is the piston that propels an organization forward.
Wendy Sheaffer is the chief product officer at The Omnia Group, an employee assessment firm providing behavioral insight to help organizations make successful hires and develop exceptional employees. Sheaffer is an expert on using Omnia’s eight columns as a tool to make informed hiring/employee development decisions and effectively engage staff. She works directly with clients and Omnia staff to provide a deeper understanding of how to use personality data to meet business goals. For more information, visit www.OmniaGroup.com, or call 800-525-7117.