Communication is Key to Resolving Conflict
Steve Adubato, Ph.D.
There are many causes of unproductive workplace conflict, such as a leader’s need to win a debate, which gets him or her into unhealthy arguments. Effective leaders understand these conflict triggers and work to minimize their impact and address the problem before it gets out of hand. They also have solid communication skills and tools that come in handy when dealing with and resolving conflict. With that said, consider some additional causes of conflicts in the workplace, and how to avoid them:
--Emotional “blind spots.” These “blind spots” occur when people or situations produce an irrational reaction in us. They may be people that we just don’t like or don’t know how to deal with. This is a “blind spot” for a leader. Additionally, we can have “blind spots” about the need to recognize and reward our people. Often, we think we’re doing just fine, but our employees feel differently. The longer we ignore these “blind spots,” the deeper the conflict becomes.
--A bad attitude or emotional “baggage.” All of us carry “baggage” and have to manage our own attitudes. Often, we don’t realize that all this impacts the way we communicate and manage others. Further, sometimes we are frustrated by a workplace colleague or situation but won’t or can’t confront it directly; rather, we misplace our frustration and direct it toward an innocent party who doesn’t see it coming. You can predict the outcome…conflict!
--Employee differences. Sometimes a cause of conflict centers on factors such as culture, gender, age or work experiences. The more diverse workplaces become, the greater potential there is for conflict based on differences. This requires managers to become more active listeners as opposed to simply barking out orders. Great managers clarify potential confusion and impending conflict by asking open-ended questions like; ‘James, when I asked everyone on the team to increase productivity by five percent, what was your reaction?” Then, let Jim speak. Don’t assume that you know what his answer will be.
--Passing judgment. Another key for managers is to be more “other centered” as opposed to being solely “goal” or “self” centered. Simply put, don’t pass judgment. Take the time to understand your people and their unique perspectives. Great managers understand that people have “separate realities,” as the late author Richard Carlson liked to say in his powerful book “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff.” Accept these different perceptions of reality as a fact of workplace life and you’ll reduce your frustration and begin to deal with conflict more effectively.
--Playing the “blame game.” When leaders are too focused on pointing fingers or playing the “blame game” when things go wrong, it becomes a big source of conflict and poor communication. It’s not easy, but try to become more “solution oriented” the next time something goes wrong. Fight the urge to point the finger of blame. I am still working on it. Blaming causes hard feelings and resentment, and in turn, conflict. Seek to figure out not only what went wrong, but what needs to go right in order to move forward. The more your team sees you as a manager who “seeks solutions,” the less conflict you will have and the more risks team members will take.
Finally, take responsibility when things go wrong. Be accountable, even if you are not 100% convinced that it all falls on you. Doing this communicates a powerful message to your people that they, too, can and should step up and be accountable. See mistakes as an opportunity to grow and learn which in turn will help your team experience less conflict and greater success.