Is it possible to have a harmonious office free of conflict? When you have a group of individuals, conflict is inevitable. Disagreements usually come about from a clash of personalities or when ideas or opinions don’t match. And an office that doesn’t tackle conflict head-on will have unresolved resentment and frustrations under the surface. Ignoring these won’t make them go away: instead they will manifest themselves in other, more significant, problems.
While many of us go to great lengths to avoid conflict, the thing that we are avoiding could actually be essential to long term business success. Unresolved conflict never goes away, it just stews and simmers until a member of staff leaves, or it blows up into a full-scale crisis.
While it may seem easier to let go at the time, the consequences of unresolved conflict can be impossible to fix in the long-term.
As Jacquelyn Smith writes for Forbes in How to Approach the Boss, “Sometimes the hardest part of your job isn’t the work; it’s the people… Conflict is uncomfortable, and many are so stymied by it that it seems easier – at the time – to just suck it up and let it pass.”
But many people stay clear of conflict for the simple reasons that it can breed animosity, hurt feelings and shift focus away from the matter in hand. So how can we build a culture that encourages frank discussion, allows healthy conflict and succeeds in effective resolution to move forward and overcome workplace challenges?
Here, we look at why you need conflict to succeed in business, how to manage healthy conflict and ways of creating an environment that allows all employees to speak up and voice their point of view without fear of ridicule or being bullied.
The benefits of conflict
Peace is not an absence of conflict. It is the ability to handle conflict by peaceful means.
Conflict is inevitable – in every workplace. But at the same time, it is also possible to have a peaceful working environment, by dealing with conflict in a mature way. But not only is conflict inevitable, but it is also positive and healthy – for the business, for working relationships and the long-term happiness of the workforce.
Rather than shying away from it, conflict is a major part of reaching for better solutions, better ideas, and innovations. It’s being able to deal with problems that galvanize teams and makes them more adept at overcoming the challenges that occur naturally in business.
As Bernie Mayer Ph.D, Professor of Dispute Resolution, The Werner Institute, Creighton University says in a report:
“Unless we can empower people to deal with problems that arise along the way, to face difficulties, to recognize and adjust when strategies are not working or are impossible to implement, to help those who are struggling, to handle the inevitable tensions and conflicts that challenging work engenders, and to maintain a positive attitude about that work, we cannot build a truly effective team, unit or organization.”
Here are some of the reasons why we should welcome and not shy away from disagreements and conflict.
- It adds new perspectives
In order to generate new ideas and innovation, you need human interaction, conflict, argument, and debate. When you take onboard another perspective, you either commit more to your original thought, or you are influenced by new ideas. Different points of view can fine-tune the truth and allow you to develop your ideas further – or completely change your standpoint. Conflict is an excellent way of testing the validity and strength of an opinion or belief, and individuals should be open to having their perceptions tested.
- We can verbalize better
So much goes unsaid in an office, that conflict can actually help us to say what we want. When we’re comfortable with speaking up, we can express what we want a lot better. This makes us more resilient, able to work better and have more honest and meaningful working relationships with our colleagues.
- It teaches us to listen
One of the elements to successful conflict is the ability to listen. In a heated discussion, many will insist on talking over the other person, driving their point home and refusing to take on an alternative point. Managed conflict can allow the space in which emotions stay grounded, and viewpoints are expressed in a measured, calm environment. It may take time and patience to get to the point where your team can shelve their opinions to listen to a conflicting idea, but it is a valuable lesson. Listening gives us access to the information we need to make smart decisions.
- It hones communication skills
Even seasoned communicators work on their skills. Conflict is when you are tested to the max, to stay calm, reasoned and receptive of other ideas. Building these skills allows you not to fear conflict and will enable you to communicate your perspective and deal with it as it happens.
- Provides us with patterns of predictability
Witnessing someone in the middle of conflict teaches you a lot about that person. What triggers them, how they hold themselves, the language they use, what their limits are and so on. When you’re engaging in conflict with them, you’re able to maintain effective conflict. You’re more prepared and confident. You know what their limits are, and can manage the discussion better.
- It improves relationships
The journey of going through a problem constructively can actually bring people closer together. Having an honest exchange of opinion, listening to a counter-argument and reaching a resolution increases respect and understanding and can help them confront problems together in the future. You can learn a lot about someone through conflict, and that understanding goes a long way in improving the way you tackle disagreements together in the future.
How to manage conflict in your team
Of course – conflict can have adverse side effects. Mismanaged, it can lead to isolation, animosity, and resentment. Conflict needs to be constructive, have direction and be held in a supportive environment.
So, how do you steer your team to handle conflict? And how do you encourage people to resolve amicably without a leader stepping in to mediate? Here are a few tips:
Build the foundations of healthy conflict into your workplace culture
For healthy conflict to happen, it must exist in an environment of trust and respect. The in-house rules and code of ethics that have shaped your organization should provide the foundation which can contain conflict, provide the help to resolve and allow people to progress onwards.
Manage negative behaviors
When conflict takes place between people, we often see toxic behaviors take over. These can vary from anger and personal attacks to stonewalling and defensiveness – which can add stress and anxiety to a situation. Taking time out, keeping your composure and naming behaviors can all go some way to defusing the toxicity and will take practice.
Address problematic conduct post-conflict
What comes out of mismanaged conflict? Passive aggression and oppressive behavior. And often those who are guilty of this will not realize that they are behaving like this. To allow conflict to have constructive impact, it’s a good idea to speak to these people privately. Once resolved, re-address the behaviors with the people involved and allow them to reflect on better ways of conducting themselves when conflict inevitably arises. Address their behavior in a firm, but
Model a conflict-positive attitude
Build a conflict-friendly culture with your team by tackling issues head-on as they appear. Conflict can be normal and healthy when done correctly, so lead by example and show how you can present an alternative side to an argument in a mature manner. For a team to grow, they need to be able to feel comfortable about speaking up without fear of finger-pointing, being dismissed or criticized.
Reframe surface conflict
When it comes to conflict resolution, so much of it rests on the words used. To be effective in it, you need to be able to reframe your problem for it to be addressed by the people involved. So, if complaints have been raised regarding aggressive behavior towards a particular person, it could be addressed as follows, “I’ve noticed you and John haven’t been getting on recently. It’d be great to hear your side of things and see how we can resolve it without it having an effect on the rest of the team.”
Be mindful of the different personalities
Often, you will need to resolve conflict in different ways with different people. Some employees will not mind being called out in front of the team, whereas others may feel humiliated. Some will prefer a mediator in the room to resolve an issue with a peer, while others prefer to be left alone. Find out what it is that each of your people responds well to and be mindful that when conflict resolution needs to be carried out, it is done so correspondingly.
Keep close ties
While conflict can happen in every team, it’s what happens afterward that is important. It’s imperative that staff members can communicate and work together after the conflict has occurred without any resentment or ill feeling. One of the most critical aspects of this ‘aftercare’ is to maintain good relationships with everyone involved. This could vary from recognizing good work to team lunch dates and a culture of open communication and conflict-free interactions on a day-to-day basis.