“Conflict is a good thing. It’s part of a healthy workplace.” My former co-worker, Dave, used to say that. It was a lifetime ago, in a job well in the rearview mirror. He believed in getting it out in the open and hashing out differences as much as possible, ready or not.
To say that he wasn’t always popular with management, or some of his co-workers, would be an understatement. No one questioned his work ethic, but his brusque approach to problem solving didn’t always go smoothly. We all know a “Dave”. Maybe he works with or for you. If you’re looking around and don’t see him, but you recognize the sentiment, maybe you are the Dave of the office!
Dave has a point. When people hear the word ‘conflict’ they often think of the negative connotations because the conflict has hit a breaking point. Unresolved conflict is what causes the most stress and anxiety. It’s that period of time where it builds up, weighing you down and filling the spaces around you to the point it can be suffocating. That tension continues to build until the valve is released: it starts venting everywhere, or worse, there’s an explosion. In situations with unresolved conflict, this is inevitable: pressure builds, and sooner or later, it will release. At the same time, successful conflict resolution can strengthen relationships and jump-start innovative problem-solving between peers. If you have the choice between unresolved conflict that leads to stress and strife and successful conflict resolution, the clear winner is to engage in successful conflict resolution.
Why then do people wait to get to that breaking point? It’s the same reason why people wait to file their taxes. It’s not only standard procrastination, there are also personality traits that make people want to avoid that stressor for as long as possible, hoping that the situation will resolve itself. Sometimes, it does. When it doesn’t though … that’s when things get messy.
Here are the three primary steps towards successful conflict resolution:
1. Identify the type of conflict: There are a couple main areas that tend to draw people into conflict.
Goals/Structural – There is a disagreement on what should be done/how to do it. This can be anything from the fundamental “That isn’t what we should be doing to solve this problem” to a specific concern about the distribution of staff and resources. An example of this situation is when Dave was getting frustrated with another department not meeting their deadlines. They were working on other projects, with different timetables, which meant the work he needed wasn’t being prioritized. It can be especially frustrating for a fast-paced multi-tasker to understand people who are methodical and need to complete one job before moving on to the next.
Personal or relational – Some people just don’t get along. They might never be best friends outside of work, but they need to figure out a way to manage a working relationship in a professional manner. Dave definitely rubbed some people the wrong way and ended up in conflicts that could have been avoided with a little insight into his own and other people’s behavioral traits.
2. Define the conflict: What is this conflict actually about? It can be helpful to discuss the background of this disagreement to uncover the root of where it began. That can provide insight on where the two thought processes diverged, and how to bring them back together. This is often the stage where you discover that it’s more than just the surface argument – that there are layers of issues that have built up over time. Or that perhaps it was a simple misunderstanding that, once addressed, can be easily resolved.
3. Resolve the conflict: – Each conflict is unique, as are the participants. There are going to be various strategies on how to best deal with the situation.
According to the Thomas-Kilmann model of conflict, there are five modes of conflict resolution: avoiding, competing, accommodating, compromising and collaborating.
Avoiding and competing don’t necessarily lead to resolution. With these, the loudest voice in the room wins, and the person who doesn’t want to, or simply can’t stand to, deal with the conflict ends up stepping back. Although the parties in conflict may move on from the issue at hand, nothing is accomplished. The root of the conflict will remain, only to come up again later.
Dave was a competitor. He wanted to be right and he would go to great lengths to tell you all about how he was. At the time, I was more likely to try to avoid the situation altogether. It was that childhood logic: if you put a blanket over your head, then you can’t see the problem, and it can’t see you either!
Accommodating poses a similar problem to avoidance. In order to keep the peace, one party has to completely back down to allow the other to “win” the argument. Or the other person has to overwhelm them with the strength of their conviction. The accommodating party may participate in the process more than the avoiding party, but both methods promote the feelings of winning and losing. The losing side is typically overly concerned with harmony, so their thoughts and opinions are not always expressed or heard.
Compromise and collaboration are the ideal options for healthy conflict resolution. They rely on both parties acting in good faith and coming to a resolution without needing a manager to step in and make an executive decision. While this may sometimes be needed to move forward with a project, it should be the last resort. Managers can act as mediators, but successful conflict resolution means the two parties involved can move forward without someone in authority needing to make the final judgment.
Compromise involves the parties coming together and both giving up a little on their position. Whereas collaboration involves working together to find a way that allows both to be a part of the process. Sometimes that can incorporate ideas from both and can often involve new ideas that came up as part of their discussion.
Part of both compromise and collaboration is recognizing that the conflict is an opportunity to sit down and discuss a situation. Perhaps there was misinformation that can be cleared up, and a better system for delivering useful data can be discovered. Learning about each other’s point of view, while acknowledging that the core of the dispute is a shared love and pride for the work that you do can establish a stronger bond.
Ultimately conflict resolution is about understanding people, which is where a behavioral assessment, like the Omnia Assessment, comes in.
The assessment itself is a conversation about the push and pull between the conflicting attributes that make up a personality. Each section represents opposing traits. If you understand where members of your team are on that particular spectrum, it is easier to predict potential areas of conflict.
Dave was someone who was focused on personal advancement. He enjoyed working on commission where his paycheck was determined by his ability to sell. On the other hand, I’ve always been someone focused on what the team needs and trying to be helpful and enjoy the security of a steady income. Dave was far more social and really seemed to recharge by being around people. I can do that but need some time on my own to reflect in order to get back up to speed. He always had multiple projects going at once, and I needed to focus on what was in front of me. He was someone who thought in terms of the big picture and came in with the idea that mistakes were opportunities. That last one may have been where we had the most problems, with my own tendency to drill down into the details to get it right the first time. As polar opposites in so many ways, we had our share of disagreements. Looking back, if we had been able to utilize a behavioral assessment tool, with support from a trained analyst, things would have gone a lot smoother. We would have known where each other’s challenges were and could have worked together far more effectively.
When you understand your Dave’s tendencies and motivations, you are in a much better position to transform the conflict from non-productive to productive and resolve potential areas of stress that might come up in his day. When you understand the strengths, challenges and communication style of all parties involved it becomes easier to find areas where compromise and collaboration can be reached.
With the right tools, understanding can be the greatest catalyst for change and growth in your workplace. Instead of just getting the conflict out there, as Dave liked to do, you have the tools to work through it together so that everyone feels heard. That way, conflict is no longer the valve that explodes but the piston that propels the organization forward.