Are you having people problems at work? So how does this make you feel?
How many of you look forward to participating actively in a conflict at work, confident that the underlying issues will be resolved and progress made?
How many of you keenly anticipate situations of conflict and disagreement among the people you lead, confident that positive outcomes will ensue from the dialogue and that working relationships will subsequently improve?
Seeking Productive Outcomes
Some of you will have had experiences like these. If so, it will be able to point occasions when the results of a well-handled disagreement or conflict were productive for your organisation.
Iron does sharpen iron, and a resolved disagreement or conflict can bring about improved processes, innovations for customers, better dialogue between colleagues, enhanced products and services, and more productive and efficient ways of working.
But most of you will also be able to point to situations in which conflict and disagreement splintered your work groups, situations in which no effective resolution to the underlying issues was found, and relationships became less effective and more awkward.
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Maybe certain issues in your team or workplace have never been resolved, and consequently there is unfinished business sitting between people you lead, or between you and some of your colleagues, circumstances which hinder productivity and reduce service levels.
It is situations like these that I am addressing here.
With experiences such as these behind you, many of you may not look forward to future conflicts or disagreements.
In fact, you may even avoid trying to resolve some of the more challenging conflicts you face, a stratgey which won’t work well for you in the long run.
Even one unresolved key conflict between colleagues can fragment relationships in your workplace and erode your organisation’s ability to work effectively and productively for your employer.
So What’s The Problem?
Why might some conflicts be more difficult to resolve than others?
In my view, it is usually because at least one of the parties sets their will against resolution of the issues.
Let’s take a look at some of the factors that might be relevant here:
Select one unresolved conflict that you have sufficient knowledge about that you can consider it afresh in the light of the following factors. Take a mental step back from the conflict and decide which of the following elements is in play in regard to the unresolved issues:
- Is the conflict about disagreements over goals? In other words, do the different parties (you included) want to achieve different and apparently incompatible goals?
- Is the conflict about what constitutes a fact, or what weight should be given to different facts in a problem-solving or decision-making process?
A Case Study
Let’s consider these two factors before considering two more. In either of these cases, the issues are actually resolvable, even if they don’t seem so at the moment. It will take some hard work, but a conflict which is about either or both of these sets of issues can be resolved.
Colleagues who might not find it easy to deal with one another will have to sit down and talk it through.
They’ll need to be prepared to put their views on the table in a non-judgemental fashion, listen to other perspectives, seek to understand those perspective, ask questions to clairfy what they don’t understand and find a way forward which puts their customers’ best interests – and therefore their employers’ – before any other set of considerations.
Some compromising will be needed, some effort and some thinking. But it is do-able.
The Other Factors
So, what other factors might be affecting the example of an unresolved conflict which you are considering?
Here are two more:
- Is the conflict to do with the key players having different personal values?
- Is the conflict to do with the key players having different ideas about which processes, procedures, strategies and tactics are most likely to enable their team to reach its goals?
If the answer is yes, then again, in either of these two cases, the issues can be resolved. It will mean that the people at the heart of the unresolved conflict will need to talk through their differences, and have the courage to re-examine their own personal values and preferences.
Let’s look at this process through a short example:
Take the situation where a team leader wants to use their development budget to train the two less effective members of the team to bring them up to scratch.
She clashes with her boss who wants the same budget spent differently.
He wants the money to be used to develop the team’s top three performers as a reward and as an incentive to encourage them in future months.
These two colleagues have different sets of values and this creates a different view about how to spend this budget.
But it is still a resolvable conflict as long as the two people agree a way forward:
They may decide that the team leader has jurisdiction over her team and can decide how to spend her budget.
Or they may decide that her boss is the ultimate authority in the department and its his call.
Or they may decide that this year the less skilled members of the team will be trained, but next year the budget will be used to reward top performers with additional relevant development.
It is a question of deciding to resolve the difference because it is in your employers best interests to do so.
And as a leader you set the tone how conflict will be handled and resolved in your organisation. To do so effectively you need to you look within first and ask yourself: what unresolved conflicts could I play a part in resolving? What benefits would resolving these situations create for my team and my employer? Where will I start? And who else among my team will I encourage to address key unresolved conflicts today?
Aryanne Oade is Director of Oade Associates
She is a Chartered Psychologist, executive coach, workshop facilitator, author & public speaker
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