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Opinion: 7 ways to deal with workplace conflict

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Workplace conflict is inevitable, and it can be healthy or harmful to an organization.

Healthy workplace conflict is possible as long as management handles the various personality clashes and disagreements that arise effectively.

Having worked with over 200 organizations, I’ve witnessed consistent advantages for those with cultures characterized by healthy conflict. They usually possess strong employee engagement, have high levels of trust and enjoy free-flowing communications.

I’ve also witnessed organizations with unhealthy conflict. In these environments, communications are often strained, trust is dysfunctional, and managers waste valuable time trying to resolve clashes and disagreements. The drama in some emotionally charged situations could drive a manager or supervisor mad.

Unfortunately, managers often do what comes naturally and fail to think through how their words or actions might impact others, which can create unintended, serious consequences.

Resolving conflict can take up valuable time that’s not invested in hitting your goals. Chronic conflict also will taint morale and communications, and it will harm your employees’ work satisfaction and the customers’ experiences.

Disputes can arise between team members, between managers, between an employee and their manager, or among departments. Clearly, managers better know how to objectify the issues and lower tensions among people, wherever they happen.

Here are seven ways to handle and prevent conflict.

1. Use a structured approach. Taking an impromptu or one-size-fits-all approach won’t help resolve most conflict. When dealing with personality struggles and misunderstandings, it’s better to use established approaches and tools. Being prepared and poised will help ease tensions and improve solutions.

2. Talk things through. Nothing happens unless you bring the issue to the surface and discuss it. Try saying: “I realize there are a few things that have created confusion for you, so let’s talk about these areas.” Engage the individual, listen to their perspective and modify your own views as necessary.

3. Clarify the impact. Help the individual understand the impact of the issue on their teammates and the company. Try saying: “I know you want to do a good job, so let’s discuss the ways your approach is adversely impacting your co-workers.” This will make them aware of the unintended consequences of their behavior, but it can also help them make lasting changes.

4. Don’t rush to judgment. One client of mine, an owner of a small business, used to have a bad habit of making hasty conclusions and coming down hard on people when conflict arose. This actually created more conflict, lowered trust with his employees and strained communications. Try saying: “Your concerns may be warranted; can you walk me through a scenario where you’ve seen this happening so I can better understand it?”

5. Clarify your expectations. Several years ago, another client thought she was crystal clear on expectations with her leadership team. However, her ambiguity created frustration and confusion. Taking the extra time to clarify your expectations will usually resolve conflict faster, or prevent it from occurring. Try saying: “I attempt to be clear on my expectations, but I’m not perfect. Can you tell me what you think my expectations are for this project?”

6. Redirect the focus. Move the issue from a problem-focused dispute to a solution-focused discussion. To identify lasting resolutions you want to address the whole conflict, but you must also keep the focus away from blame and heated emotions. Try saying, “Let’s find some constructive, respectful ways to handle this. What can you offer to help make our effort successful?”

7. Implement and follow up. Within a suitable time frame, evaluate how well your planned solution is working and make the necessary corrections.

With so many generations working together today, and with turbulent change demanding agility from most organizations, productive conflict management requires a skilled approach. As you become more practiced at using what works, you’ll get better at resolving and preventing future conflict.

Consultant, professional speaker and author Mark Holmes is president of Consultant Board Inc. and MarkHolmesGroup.com. He can be reached at mark@markholmesgroup.com.

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