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Handling Workplace Conflict: Top Five Mistakes Managers Make

Claudette Rowley and Sushilaa Pathalam

Under the best of circumstances, managing conflict in the workplace can be a tricky proposition. Managers and employees alike are often reluctant to address a conflict due to fear of making it worse, discovering it can’t be resolved, or not knowing the best way to approach the resolution process.

Unresolved conflict has a high cost. A 2008 study from CPP found that U.S. employees   spent approximately 2.8 hours per week dealing with conflict equaling $359 billion in paid hours.  

In addition to the financial toll, unresolved conflict has key effects on productivity, decision making and employee retention.  Managers are often called to resolve disputes between employees, on teams or between departments. In today’s stressed work environment, it’s easy for managers (and employees) to make the following five mistakes.

Mistake #1: Responding to a conflict when angry or distraught. Unless it’s a true emergency or a safety issue, it’s best to take a time out when experiencing strong emotion. Here’s why: When adrenalin is activated by a strong emotional response, it’s hard for us to maintain a rational mindset. Instead, our “fight or flight” response gets engaged. The “fight or flight” response eliminates – at least temporarily -- our ability to think creatively, to be calm, and to problem solve effectively.

Mistake #2: Speaking to positions rather than interests.  When we focus on our position in a conflict, we try to get the other person to do what we want them to do—this approach can damage relationships and our ability to discover a good solution to a conflict. Instead, managers need to help employees identify their interests. Interests are the needs, desires and priorities that are important to someone during a conflict. Interest can be concrete, such as money, a piece of furniture or a job. They can also emotionally -based, such as the need for appreciation, fairness or respect.

Mistake #3: Not preparing.  Sometimes people believe they can resolve a conflict without preparing. I’ve heard people say “I’ll just talk him or her and I’m sure we can work it out”. This strategy will often create more conflict. Conflict can be one-sided or the other person may be more upset than you realize. Always prepare. Take the time to reflect on how you want to approach the parties in conflict, what resolution you would propose, and how to best begin the conversation.

Mistake #4: Talking more than listening.  Conflict can’t be resolved without a lot of listening. Sometimes managers do more talking than listening and lose an important window into an employee’s perspective. Listening is not agreeing – it’s okay to give people airtime. Active listening requires paying attention to the other person, and exhibiting this attention through listening through eye contact and positive body language. When trying to resolve conflict, managers want to listen for underlying needs, desires and priorities.

Mistake #5: Avoiding the conflict. All of us have a “conflict blueprint” – habitual ways of responding to conflict. Even at work, managers are not immune to their own conflict blueprints. One of the most costly mistakes managers make is avoid addressing a conflict altogether.  The costs range from lost productivity and ineffective communication to diminished employee morale and engagement. Most conflicts do not “go away” if left alone; they usually compound over time as emotions continue to run high, others’ intentions are perceived as negative, and beliefs about the conflict become distorted. Habitual unresolved conflict in the workplace can feel like walking with a painful splinter in one’s foot. You can try to assuage the pain but it never goes away.

Here’s the good news: Most workplace conflict can be resolved effectively. Three common methods of resolving and preventing these disputes are mediation, coaching and training.

Mediation. Mediation is confidential, can be less expensive than other interventions, and can help companies resolve ongoing or acute conflicts on a case by case basis. Mediation is often described as “assisted negotiation”, in during which a neutral third party (the mediator) works with both parties to define their goals and develop options for resolution. The goal of the mediator process is to help people arrive at creative, win-win agreements based on their interests.

Conflict Management Coaching. Conflict management coaching helps leaders, managers and employees strengthen their conflict management skills, resolve an ongoing dispute, or understand how to prevent future conflicts from occurring. Benefits include stronger employee relationships, better communication and a greater ability to manage organizational conflict.

Training. Onsite conflict management training is a great prevention tool. Organizations often expect people to resolve conflicts when they don’t have the rights skill set to handle a dispute in a productive manner. Give employees the opportunity to learn skills, gain insights and practice new competencies.  

While conflict in the workplace is inevitable, allowing it to go unaddressed is not. Managers and employees alike can learn new skills to resolve conflict, recognize when it’s best to bring in a third party, and ultimately improve results, communication and employee engagement.

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