To put a spin on an old idiom – Death, taxes and conflict are the only constants in this world. Conflict is inevitable. Unresolved conflict in the workplace can damage an organization in numerous ways, including economic loss, exodus of talent and reputational harm. Whether the conflict is between two employees, entire groups or management and staff, if allowed to fester, such conflict can destroy great organizations. Instead of avoiding or ignoring a situation that is impacting one or more of your people, it is important for leaders to lean into the heat and address conflict head on.
Step 1 on the path to resolving a conflict is acknowledging that a problem exists. In my experience, this is the biggest hurdle that most companies face. Either because such admission could tarnish their reputation, attract negative publicity, affect their bottom line, cause them to lose supporters or a confluence of factors – employers often apply a “wait and see” or “something happened, hope no one else hears about it” approach. These strategies typically do not work. I often tell my clients that, instead of shying away from an issue, to embrace their inner firefighter. Run into the burning building and extinguish the fire before it spreads.
Step 2 is to have a process in place for addressing conflict. My company, Breakthrough ADR, advises organizations that aspire to have a frictionless workplace. We teach our clients, including Fortune 100 and other companies, non-profits, educational institutions and governmental agencies (including the New York Police Department and the District of Columbia Housing Authority), to listen, negotiate and resolve conflict in a variety of settings.
In the course of that work, we have observed that regardless of the workplace environment, as noted in the book People Styles at Work and Beyond: Making Bad Relationships Good and Good Relationships Better by Grover and Bolton “people are more predictable than you think.” Our observations have led us to develop five SMART strategies to help your company resolve business conflict in the new year.
- Separate the person from the problem. At its core, most workplace conflicts have two foundational elements: (1) the people involved in the conflict and (2) the problem those people seek to address. In order to most effectively resolve a conflict, you have to separate (1) from (2). In Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement without Giving In, Fisher, Ury and Patton devoted an entire chapter on this concept. Sometimes the problem itself is simple to resolve, but because of the people involved (including their philosophies, experiences and personalities) the resolution is not apparent or seemingly out of reach. As you enter the new year, pledge to stop conflating people and problems, and address each separately.
- Make a point to understand the underlying interests, and not just the stated positions of the people in conflict. The distinction between what a person is saying they want versus why they want something is important to recognize and sometimes reveals that the underlying goals of the parties are more aligned than divergent. Once interests are known, positions often soften, and common ground can be reached.
- Accept reality with a “Yes, and…”. As an improv student at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade, I learned the “Yes, and” technique. Essentially, this approach fosters a sense of cooperation because each improviser is encouraged to listen and be receptive to the ideas of others regardless of whether you agree or disagree with the premise. How this translates to conflict resolution is easy. Saying “Yes, but…” halts a conversation because once you say “but” you negate everything that preceded that word. “Yes, and…” builds communication bridges that you can use to reach an understanding. By substituting one word, choosing “and” instead of “but” you can open the door to engage in collaborative problem-solving.
- Resolve with everyone at the table. Once the door is open, make sure you invite everyone involved in the conflict to the table. It is a waste of time to try to solve a conflict when a key person to the situation is not a part of the conversation. You cannot agree to acts, omissions or changes in behavior on behalf of someone else – the person in question has to be involved. While I do not advise forcing someone who steadfastly refuses to be involved to the table, creative leaders can set the tone for the organization and properly incentivize all stakeholders to come to the table.
- Trust the process. Effective and durable change requires time, patience and flexibility. There will likely be challenges when you implement a well thought out conflict management plan, particularly if the change of course is significant. Naturally, some participants in the plan may doubt it – e.g., “the plan will work too slowly” or “the plan is never going to work” – but as a leader you need to trust the process and encourage your team to do so. If you have engaged in a quality process where you have followed the prior 4 strategies, then the plan that you have designed has a high probability for success. Plus, remember that plans are guidelines that can be revisited and adapted as your organization grows and changes.
While conflict is inevitable, the good news is that business conflict is both manageable and resolvable. SMART organizations are able to effectively identify, manage, and resolve conflict.