Wherever you have people working in close proximity, you have the potential for conflict. Often this manifests as a healthy rivalry between staff members. But when left unattended, you open your company up to an unproductive and distracted team. This is bad for business and detrimental to the people who make your business great. As a small business owner, you may not have the luxury of an HR department. So, what can you do to manage conflict in your own workplace?
Understand why there is conflict in the workplace
First and foremost, it is important to understand that a commercial team is doing so much more than just offering a service and earning a salary. It is far more complicated than that: Psychoanalytic Candidate Andy Cohen explains, “A workplace is like a family structure with complicated inter-personal dynamics. And where there is family, there are constant unconscious sibling and parental dynamics at play. Without even realizing it, staff are constantly engaging in all sorts of unresolved family power struggles and wish fulfilment in relation to each other, and this can be really tricky if overlooked.” Fortunately, In many ways, these dynamics can also be very healthy. Particularly if people feel safe enough to speak up and generate healthy conflict amongst each other. This can be an opportunity to work through some of that early childhood stuff and conquer old fears. This is often where a lot of innovation and diversity of thought is born between people. The worry is when conflict gets ugly and turns into face-offs between departments, when people refuse to engage with each other, and then productivity suffers. When this happens, it’s time to talk.
What causes conflict in the workplace?
These underlying dynamics play out in all sorts of ways like opposing positions, competitive tensions, ego and pride, issues with performance or compensation, bad moods, as well as bringing stress from home into work with them. Luckily this can often be managed with a good dose of clear communication, understanding and acknowledgement of the many emotions involved.
Often lack of communication is the reason why people get triggered. Meaning that the whole thing might have been avoided with more clarity, accurate briefing and timely information being given. This often eases the severity of conflicts.
As mentioned above, underlying unconscious tensions will make all inter-office dynamics complex. But while this is inevitable, professionally speaking, it is a problem when emotions drive decisions. For instance, have you ever watched an employee go into a fit of rage in the heat of the moment? If so, what you’re really experienced was someone indulging their emotions instead of securing their future.
So how can you effectively manage conflict in your own workplace?
This needs to be done through a structured and professional approach to conflict resolution. Remember that while compassion is important, you are not friends. You need to boldly assume a caring parental role which will hold your team in a firm framework throughout the tough discussions ahead. The success of discussions thereafter is largely dependent on whether all parties feel heard, even if ultimately they don’t get what they want. It also depends on how they understand the benefits of working out the problem, together with their desire to work through it as a team.
What are the steps towards resolving conflict
- Schedule a meeting to address the problem. This should preferably be in a neutral environment.
- Set parameters to the meeting by asking all staff members to treat each other with respect and endeavour to listen to each other’s concerns.
- Have each person explain the situation from their point of view. They should focus on specific problems instead of people.
- Encourage the other person to repeat what they understood was explained to them. This technique helps the other person to feel heard.
- Summarize the issues in a holistic way. This demonstrates to your team that you have heard all views and lets them know you value each issue raised. Even if you have different views yourself.
- Brainstorm potential solutions together and summarize again.
- Identify issues that cannot be addressed and make a call on a way forward with these dilemmas.
- Ensure all parties have agreed on a way forward.
- Close the meeting by suggesting a handshake and also schedule a follow up chat in a few weeks to see how things are getting along.
Approach conflict as an opportunity for professional and emotional growth
This approach understands that (as with all inter-personal relationships) depending on each other is complicated. But it also highlights that conflict can actually be a healthy opportunity to improve communication, relationships and performance amongst your team. This rings true on both a professional and emotional level as well. And with work being a place where your team invests so many hours in the day, they are entitled to feel passionate and protective of both these things. As a business owner though, armed with a keen ear and a strategic plan, this needn’t become an issue, but rather an opportunity to build your team and turn conflicts into growth.