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5 Ways to Prevent Workplace Conflict

Posted on | February 25, 2010 | No Comments

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Handling conflict is one of the most frustrating and biggest drains on managers. A study conducted in 2008 by CPP revealed that the average U.S. employee spends 2.8 hours a week dealing with conflict. That translates to 385 million working days spent each year due to conflict at work. Managing that conflict is results in reduced productivity, lower morale, and increased costs all while using valuable resources.

As per the study mentioned earlier, many employees attribute most of the conflict they experience to personality clashes and egos. This attribution is echoed in my experience as an organizational development consultant, mediator, and coach. Unlike a study, my work has allowed me to delve deep into situational conflicts and explore the dynamics at work. What I’ve learned is that most conflict is not caused by personality differences, but as a result of:

1. Misaligned or misunderstood goals (working at cross purposes)
2. Unclear roles
3. Unclear processes or procedures

In my 34 years of working in and with organizations, never have I seen personalities as the root problem. Someone’s behavior may be troublesome, and people often ascribe behavior to a personality problem—but this may or may not be true.

Moving from observing behavior to analyzing someone’s personality is dangerous, inappropriate and beyond most of our skill sets. Furthermore, we have almost no control over someone’s personality, so the endeavor to label it as problematic puts us in a no-win situation.

Rather than look at personalities, we need to look at the situation. As a mediator and consultant, I start to dig deeper when people say that the problem is “the other person’s personality.” I ask them to go back to observable behaviors: “What is happening in concrete, specific terms?”

I often ask people to laboriously detail events and processes. 99% of the time, people discover that it is not the other person’s personality that’s the problem but rather a misunderstanding, confusion, or a difference of opinion about goals, expectations, roles, or processes. These are easier to remedy (though not always) and much less likely to be emotionally loaded.

It behooves us, as managers, to not only resolve conflict but to prevent it. Each of us—whether we are leaders, managers or co-workers—can help. Here’s how:

1. Increase time spent on start-up processes. When a new project begins or a new hire is on boarded, spend the upfront time to be clear about the job, including goals, expectations, roles, authority level, decision making, reporting lines, communication requirements, and troubleshooting processes. Be meticulous about the start-up process. It’s a big investment of time, often resisted by busy managers, but it’s well worth it if it increases trust and productivity, speeds the learning curve and prevents problems later. And it will!
2. Deal with problems quickly. As soon as a problem surfaces, long before it becomes a conflict, deal with it. It should be managed quickly. The earlier you intervene the easier it will be to straighten out.
3. Keep your eye on the facts. Do not start analyzing or attributing motivation. Assume good intentions if anything. Delve into the situation, asking questions to discover people’s understanding of the goals, of their roles and the role of others, and review work processes. Get details and keep it objective. Focus on the problems and dynamics, not the people.
4. Get people together. Listening to one side or the other sets up triangulation. Bring the parties together and help THEM talk this out. Guide them, help them communicate well. With all parties in the room you have more details and more perspectives, and people are held responsibility for what they are saying. Co-workers need to learn how to talk through issues together. (You can use Step 3 as your guide for topics.)
5. Take ownership. We all have a part in any situation in which we are involved. Look for your contribution and be willing to do something about it. If you are a manger don’t back off from saying what you want or stating that a decision is yours to make. Sometimes employees are clashing because you have not been clear or decisive. Step up and ask others to do the same.

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