Managing Conflicts – Tough Conversations

When conflict is ignored—especially at the top—the result will be an enterprise that competes more passionately with itself than with its competitors.”— Howard M. Guttman, When Goliaths Clash

If you have direct reports, you know how much of your time you can spend putting out fires, particularly interpersonal ones. In my work with managers, I have been told that at least 20 percent of their time is consumed taking care of interoffice conflicts.

And the problems don’t stop there. Even when a conflict is put to an end, it can be difficult for the people involved to let go. Even if they aren’t fighting openly anymore, they might still be angry and frustrated. When coworkers ruminate over arguments and disagreements, there can be a huge loss in productivity.

All of us work in a culture that tends to value democratic processes and individual freedoms. This kind of culture can encourage healthy debates and arguments. I don’t think this is a bad thing, as new ideas can spring from disagreements and those who refuse to “go along just to get along.” This, however, doesn’t mean that confrontational situations shouldn’t be addressed.

When conflicts are suppressed, go unnoticed, or simply ignored, they only get worse, inviting stress for both the employees and yourself. That said, taking steps to completely eliminating all conflict at work is also not realistic. I’ve seen companies take this approach with disastrous results.

Interpersonal conflicts in the office can start for a number of reasons. Anytime there is change (especially when it revolves around cutbacks), there is usually a measurable rise in conflict. Trend analysts predict that workplace conflicts rise because today, people are facing increased pressure to produce more, at higher quality, with fewer resources.

Job insecurity, a fluctuating economy, the stress of technological advancements, increased commodification, and an epidemic of outsourcing and downsizing, these are only some of the factors that are putting stress on today’s workforce. And these stresses, when they get out of hand, can lead to conflict between coworkers.

The Leadership Edge

There is a strong link between the ability to resolve conflict and one’s perceived effectiveness as a leader. According to research from the Management Development Institute of Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida, effective managers can effectively resolve conflicts by employing four key behaviors:

  1. Gaining perspective
  2. Creating solutions
  3. Expressing emotions
  4. Reaching out

Most managers are originally trained in the competencies required for their careers and industries. When they succeeded in these areas, they were deemed suitable for promotion. But this doesn’t mean that they become astute negotiators of people’s emotions and relationships. To handle these kinds of situations, you have to figure out the right tone and vibe and put yourself forward in a position of positive communication.

This could be behind the recent upsurge in demand for coaching services. The more stressed people are, the more they need help in managing their emotions and relationships. If managers are unprepared to deal with this reality, conflicts in the office could be inevitable.

Managed well, conflict can stimulate creativity, motivate people to stretch themselves, encourage peer-to-peer learning, and help teams move beyond the status quo. Your task, as a leader and manager, is to keep those conflicts under control. Interpersonal conflict isn’t something to take lightly.

You will have to learn how to conduct tough conversations that address workplace conflicts without wasting time. That’s why I recommend working with an experienced coach. They can help you develop conflict management skills that assist in resolving disagreements in mutually acceptable ways. If a conflict is resolved, the employees won’t dwell on it and their productivity won’t take a hit. This is one of the reasons I believe coaching for tough conversations is incredibly worthwhile. Contact me here or on LinkedIn.

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