Over the past week, I’ve been interviewed on the radio twice on the subject of fixing conflicts. While I was able to give some pointers that can help in resolving clashes between co-workers, the implication was that conflict in the workplace isn’t a good thing. Actually, I believe that conflict in the workplace has a better chance of producing high performance results than insisting on a “peaceful” workplace.
The fact is, we all have different values, attitudes, beliefs, needs, ideas, and experiences. This rich mix of backgrounds can be the source of discovering new opportunities and innovation. The problem isn’t that we have conflict in the workplace, the problem is that we’re often not comfortable or skilled at expressing our conflicts, so they get pushed down while being acted out in all kinds of passive-aggressive ways (Example: think about the colleague who says “yes” to a request but is always “too busy” to deliver on the promise; or the person who loudly snaps gum despite your repeated requests to stop). The reality is that a conflict openly expressed has a better chance of leading to positive outcomes than one that is suppressed to keep “peace” at all costs.
So what are the keys to making conflict work for you? Here are three ideas:
- Catch conflict at its earliest stages: Let’s face it – someone has to confront the situation, and it’s better if it’s you because you’re taking control over what’s happening. Even if the other person denies the conflict, it’s hard for him/her to hide if you identify observable behavior in the here and now. For example, notice not just what someone says, but his/her body language and tone of voice during the interaction. Cues such as lack of cooperation with your requests, abruptness in manner, and lack of eye contact could potentially signal that a conflict is building. Note: These behaviors could also mean something else, so it’s important to check out your perceptions with the other person.
- Uncover the underlying problem: Be prepared for new information to come out into the open. Usually, there’s more to a conflict than what you can easily observe. Depending upon factors of time, your ability to be objective, and the criticality of the problem, a facilitator can sometimes help. For example, when two executives spent time deconstructing the issues underlying their conflict, they realized that they had each been operating under a series of mistaken assumptions about their objective, the timing, roles, and accountability.
- Focus on finding a common point of agreement and problem solving: Even in cases where colleagues simply don’t like each other, I’ve seen tremendous teamwork happen when everyone could agree upon the benefits of an objective. This led to a willingness to work jointly on coming up with new ways to solve the problems and move beyond the conflict. However, even if you can’t find a common point of agreement, knowing about a conflict and where it’s coming from can help you evaluate your own options and decide how you’ll move forward individually if necessary.
Conflict is natural. While confronting these issues can be uncomfortable, it’s definitely safer than stuffing the issues down and watching problems build up until progress totally grinds to a halt. Let’s stop being “peaceful”, and start talking about what’s really on our minds.