Conflict as an opportunity to negotiate rather than a blame exercise.

conflictIt’s logical that conflict arises from time to time in team situations – after all, everyone is different. We all have our own thoughts and opinions, skills and experience; it’s impossible for people working with each other to see eye to eye on everything.

As workforces shrink in number, many employers look for ways to get more from the people they currently employ. If conflict is causing a problem and affecting productivity, morale and the internal culture, it needs dealing with, otherwise it could turn into a festering disease of unhappiness, discontent, and eventually…good, trained staff leaving for opportunities elsewhere.

Conflict is to be expected. Conflict could even be described as healthy within a team (because who wants a walking, talking band of ‘yes men’, who have no thoughts beyond the task at hand?!). It’s good for the status quo to be challenged in the right way. Conflict can be the route to innovation, new ideas, and a better understanding between team members.

Avoiders and seekers

Some people shy away from conflict (avoiders), seeing it as confrontation rather than equals with differing points of view both believing their argument is valid. This can lead to small resentments turning into huge rifts within a team.

Conversely, others may be keen to tackle everything ‘head-on’, jumping on issues immediately (seekers), an approach that those around them may find intimidating.

The perspectives of those around us

Though we may not always be aware of it, we all make snap judgements. We subconsciously evaluate people on the way they look, sound, move and act. These assumptions can affect how we interact with the people we meet.

We only see things from our perspective. So, as a leader, in team meetings, it’s an effective exercise to ask all team members to explain how they see things when working on a project. Ask them to start their description with, “In my world….”; this indicates to the team that what’s to follow is another interpretation, and something to simply take on board. It’s an opinion as valid as the next person’s, and not an excuse to start arguing the toss. Teams are more likely to thrive on collaboration, not hours of discussing who may be right or wrong.

An interesting find of neuroscience is the correlation between Power and Perspective taking. People who feel powerful are more self-focused and find it hard to relate to the perspective of others. This is something which applies to everyone when they feel powerful and is not about a person’s work role or job title. So just as a manager may feel powerful and therefore find it hard to understand the perspective of team members, the same could be true of a team member who perhaps is the influencer or to go to person in the team. They may also struggle to understand the perception of a colleague or a leader, if it is not aligned to their own interpretation of the situation.

No presumptions

What’s interesting is that we’re fluid in our approach to conflict. The person who usually gives in to others will find their voice and refuse to be beaten down in the right scenario. Those who offer their opinion whether it’s warranted or not will face some situations where it’s better to be complicit. Leaders should look at how each member reacts during conflict and try to evaluate whether they’re primarily an avoider or a seeker. For example: are they tense? Do they appear nonplussed? What does their face give away? Do they get involved? How do they choose to communicate?

A Jigsaw Discovery Experience is a great way for a team to boost self-awareness and a better understanding of others, which can prove particularly effective before any conflict resolution, as it informs you about the best way of approaching and dealing with colleagues around you. Think of an employee who’s been your nemesis in the past: if you knew how they were hard-wired to think and act, if you knew what motivated them and how they want to be dealt with/talked to, it’s not difficult to tailor your approach. All you need is a willingness, understanding and the knowledge!

Conflict intelligence is a buzz-word for this kind of understanding. Successful negotiators, for example, have fantastic levels of conflict intelligence; they’re able to read scenarios very quickly and learn whether to appease or dominate, seek or avoid – and also when to change tactic if the situations moves in an unexpected direction. Imagine having that level of understanding about the people you see day in, day out, in the workplace. How much more successful would you be?

Understand the conflict

Here are a few quick things to ask yourself, about conflict, whether you’re a leader directing a large team meeting when a row threatens, or you’re simply annoyed because Susan has enjoyed the last teabag without going out to buy some more with the petty cash.

  1. Is this a worthy conflict? Are you likely to gain anything if the issue is brought up?
  2. How important is the other person to you? If the team member in the meeting is your right-hand guy, it may be worth putting all your energy into resolving the conflict. Conversely, if Susan has never nicked the last teabag before, she rarely works the same day as you, and she spends most of her time in a different department, is it worth having a ding-dong over her actions?
  3. What’s the pecking order here? Is Susan your superior by many levels? Do you have authority over your right-hand guy? Conversations between equals can be very different between employees in different pay bands. If you’re likely to quash all chances of progression in the company by making a forceful point, perhaps it might be worth thinking about the timing and delivery of the confrontation you’d like to initiate.
  4. What solution are you seeking? What would you like to happen as a result of the conflict? What do you think is a fair, workable and acceptable solution? If you know what you’d like the outcome to be, you can better influence the conversation and frame the outcome in a way that’s appealing to both parties.
  5. How can you better understand the other person’s point of view? For example, in the situation with Susan, she could have been in the middle of an important meeting when she took the last teabag, resolving to go out for more teabags later. Or perhaps she wasn’t feeling well that day and just needed a cuppa and a sit down. What information do you need to know that will help you decide the other person’s intention/motivation?

Once you have the answer to these questions, you’ll be much better equipped to see the conflict as an opportunity to negotiate rather than a blame exercise.

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