“The more we run from conflict, the more it masters us; the more we try to avoid it, the more it controls us; the less we fear conflict, the less it confuses us; the less we deny our differences, the less they divide us.” David Augsburger
There’s one thing worse than having workplace conflict…that’s avoiding it. It’s something that is very costly to business, culture, relationships, reputations and mental health when it’s avoided or ignored.
The challenge for leaders is that our current volatile and uncertain business world requires diverse teams that bring different perspectives to complex problems. In order for business to compete and grow they need to create an environment that attracts and develops diverse teams. As Walter Lippmann said, “Where all think alike, no one thinks very much.”
So it seems obvious that a group of people with diverse individual expertise would be better than a homogeneous group at solving problems. This is not only because people with different backgrounds bring new information and ideas. Simply interacting with individuals who are different from us forces us to prepare better, to anticipate alternative viewpoints and to expect that reaching consensus will take effort. There is absolute benefit in having this resourceful ‘tension’ within a team if it is managed well. If it’s not managed well, conflict can occur.
A study by CPP Inc found that in the U.S. employees spent 2.8 hours per week dealing with conflict. This amounts to approximately $359 billion in paid hours that are far from productive. Generally, when there is conflict in the workplace there’s a lot of time spent gossiping, recruiting allies, protecting ones space and simply navigating the drama of it all. The focus is in the absolute wrong place.
Confronting conflict in the workplace can be challenging for leaders. No one likes confronting situations that are of high emotion. There are a few reasons why leaders won’t confront conflict:
- Often, the decision can be to let it play out and see what happens. This is super dangerous. Play out it will, one way or another, and it very rarely just peters out.
- They believe they are too busy to deal with this s&%t! So they turn a blind eye and focus on something else.
- They are not aware of what is happening in the workplace or with their people.
- They believe they don’t handle these situations or emotions well so they run for the hills or their own avoidance strategy kicks in.
It’s a simple fact now that leaders must get better at handling conflict and addressing it immediately now that we do need and inevitably have diverse teams. We need to ensure we have a solid foundation to our culture that is of genuine inclusiveness, respect and curiosity and recruit people who strongly align with these values. And once this is in place it must be protected fiercely not only by the leader but by the team also.
Here are three tips to help you address conflict in the workplace:
- Address it immediately regardless of how minor it seems.
Don’t let situations go regardless of how minor it appears to you. A colleague of mine was involved in a situation that blew up in everyone’s face. She was leading a team and had a disagreement with one of her team members. Nothing dramatic, just a minor disagreement. Problem was the team member didn’t handle it well and my colleague chose to ignore her and pretend things were ok believing it would get better in time. Fast forward two months, you could cut the air with a knife in the business, they were not speaking to each other at all, my colleagues reputation was tarnished with the rest of the team and the team member involved was basically doing what she pleased. The end result was both of them had to be moved out of the business because the relationship was untenable and a stress claim resulted. It was lucky they worked in a large organization and could be moved into different business units. When this happens in a small business it becomes everyone’s problem.
There were two issues here, my colleague let it go and didn’t manage it well. The bigger issue was her leader ignored the situation at massive cost to the overall business. Thinking things will simmer down is a huge and costly mistake to make.
- Stick to the facts When addressing situations make sure you stick to the facts. Use examples and real situations that people can relate to. Remove the emotion and the accusatory language. Refrain from asking why questions which only evoke a justification but rather invite conversation. Use language like “What I am observing is…can you explain that to me? What I am noticing is…how that impacts on the business/team/me is………”
- Set the standard for the conversation I am a strong believer of setting ground rules for difficult conversations. There needs to be ground rules of respect, professionalism and that you’re moving towards solution. I also ensure I get solid agreement from all parties. Each person needs to have their say respectfully but ensuring you’re engaging the points in tip number two, emotion must be removed and facts included with examples to support it. If you allow an emotion charged blame session the end result will probably be worse than you started with. It’s also beneficial to create a clear action plan for those involved to work with that includes behavioural agreements for all parties.
As the quote above from David Augsburger states, the more we run from conflict the more it masters us. We can’t afford to let that happen in our workplace or our personal lives for that matter. Confronting conflict doesn’t mean it has to be a confrontation. Confronting conflict is a solution to a problematic issue. Don’t avoid it and let is destroy what you have worked really hard to achieve and impact your bottom line or those who look to your leadership to feel safe in their workplace.