Top six tips for managing conflict in the workplace

Posted 15 June 2012 by
Top six tips for managing conflict in the workplace

Conflict may not be desirable, but it is an inevitable element of the workplace. When a couple of incompatible ideas go head to head, or simply glare at each other angrily across a crowded office, the results can be destructive.

Fortunately there are approaches that not only defuse potentially damaging conflict situations, but can often turn negatives into positives. By following these six tips, managers will be making a pre-emptive strike on the problem.

1. Get in early

Most people will picture conflict as a couple of red faced men shouting at each other; but there are lots of less obvious manifestations. Conflict can simmer under the surface, or crop up as behind-the-scenes sniping, unspoken resentment and the kind of contagious office malaise whose main symptom is unproductiveness. Guidance, of the type provided by the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI), will help staff recognise these symptoms early and understand how their approach to conflict might be interpreted by others. It will also help them judge whether conflict is being well handled. Giving staff a structure to respond positively to conflict enables them to cope, and enables them to reposition conflict as a valuable feature of working life.

2. Address the causes, not just the symptoms

Whenever conflict begins to rumble, assess the situation. If the same problems are recurring, ask yourself why. It could be down to increased workloads or over-ambitious deadlines. Maybe communication is an issue. It might be a misalignment between an individual’s interests and those of the organisation. Perhaps – heaven forbid – leadership has been less than inspiring. An insightful look at office dynamics, working practices and management skills can help drill down to the underlying problems, and that makes a long-term solution more likely. Issues of this type can be isolated and explored using tools such as the MBTI Conflict Style Report.

3. Don’t sweep it under the carpet

Conflict is unlikely to get bored and go away. Even though human nature tends to favour avoidance in conflict situations, businesses cannot afford to risk letting that unsightly lump under the carpet turn into a major refurbishment emergency. A hands-off approach can result in an issue far weightier than the initial problem. Conflict occurs in all workplaces, but simply accepting this fact is not the solution. Encouraging staff to voice their differences in a constructive manner is important, and managers should be seen to engage actively with their staff’s concerns.

4. Find a cure

Like all skills, the ones useful in addressing conflict need to be acquired. It is always an option to employ professional, external mediation services, but with good TKI-based training the vast majority of issues can be resolved internally by managers and HR professionals. In conflict situations the key is to establish a framework. The cure may not be immediately apparent, especially if problems have escalated below the surface, and communication breakdown may be an underlying problem. Guiding the offended/offending parties towards an informal one-to-one is a good first step, as the opportunity for frank and open conversation can often help to rectify things.

5. Deliver the medicine

In setting the standards for what is expected of employees in terms of office culture and appropriate behaviour, and by acting as mediator, you will have a better chance of steering the situation in a positive direction. Armed with TKI, you will be able to identify specific tactics for handling conflict. And that’s the key point – because conflict has many variations, there are several different approaches, each of which can be explored under the guidance of an informed manager.

6. Love thy enemy

Conflict must be embraced. In most circumstances it can be transformed into something positive. It’s the old truism about being proactive: when you do something, something happens. Creativity can positively flourish in a well-managed conflict situation, and the former combatants can emerge with greater understanding not just of the problem, but of their own knee-jerk responses to conflict. It’s about self-enlightenment, and all for the greater good of the organisation.

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