Turning Conflict into Cooperation

"I thought John was someone I could trust," said the project manager at a technology firm I consult with on team-building issues. "But he went around me and spoke to our manager instead of talking to me. So now I'm not going to speak to him, and he'll get the message not to cross me again."

"Wouldn't it make sense to talk to him about this directly and resolve it sooner rather than later?" I asked.

"No, I could never do that. I hate conflicts," was the reluctant but exasperated reply.

"Isn't there already a conflict?" I said. "And what's wrong with conflict?"

Of course, the desire to avoid confrontation is understandable. Discord makes us uncomfortable. In a situation like the one described above, many of us would choose to tell a few close and trusted allies or just stew in our own juices as a way to deal with our feelings. It's the path of least resistance, and ultimately it's the wrong choice. Delaying resolution means depriving yourself of the opportunities that can arise from differences of opinion. Here's how to turn conflict into a constructive dynamic.

Stop ignoring conflict; it won't make it go away. Dodging misunderstandings, real or imagined, doesn't solve the problem and in fact can exacerbate tensions. This holds true whether they have been simmering for some time or have just erupted. Although the temptation is to avoid the issue while the two parties ignore each other, a better solution is to bring the combatants together for a face-to-face discussion.

Act decisively to improve the outcome. Putting off a discussion once a conflict has surfaced diminishes the possibilities for greater understanding. I saw the importance of this firsthand when a director at a large technology company came to me because her new boss, a regional president, began making big changes that directly affected her and her entire area of influence. Because he didn't consult her, feelings of betrayal and resentment began to fester. Instead of directly addressing the issue, my client began ignoring the dictates of the regional president, hence stifling her team's productivity and placing her career in jeopardy.

At my suggestion the two had a conversation immediately, which gave them an opportunity to examine the conflict's origins. By exploring the issue, the regional president discovered to his chagrin that a third person was to blame: The colleague he had entrusted with enacting his mandates did so without involving the director or anyone else. All three agreed to have a weekly phone call to avoid further misunderstandings. The lesson here is that discussing differences and disagreements can bring about improved communication and productivity gains, so why wait?

Make the path to resolution open and honest. Solicit input from all parties involved and be up front about the end result you have in mind. While progress is under way, keep everyone in the loop. When people are in roles that require close collaboration, communication is the lifeblood of mutual respect.

I have often found that highly productive people will dodge misunderstandings because they think "dealing with it" isn't in their job description and will distract them from their duties. When shown that identifying and working through misunderstandings will actually enhance their productivity and career prospects, they almost always become ardent participants.

Use descriptive language rather than evaluative. Words that stem from critical analysis of a problem can sound judgmental and accusatory, putting everyone on the defensive. Don't start with such statements as, "I've been told you've got issues with your manager. She says your actions are hurting morale." Being descriptive and dispassionate can illuminate the events better and avoid hurt feelings: "Your manager mentioned that you've had challenges lately that might be impeding your career. Can you tell me more about that? I bet if we work together, we'll find an approach that will improve the situation." It's always better to focus on the problem and its effect on the workplace and then work together to find the solution. This process is easier when you remove all judgmental and punitive language from the conversation.

Once at a management training class I was teaching, it became clear that two co-workers really had it in for each other. As soon as one of them made a comment, the other would undercut it. Just before a break I asked them both to stay so we could meet privately. After a few minutes of chitchat, it came out that they had always butted heads but that the situation had grown worse after a promotion that left the other feeling overlooked and resentful. I decided to solicit their participation in a little exercise. I gave them each a sheet of paper and requested they write out the common goals they each had for their department's projects and their personal careers. I also suggested they describe the steps most important to realizing these objectives. Then I read their comments aloud. To their astonishment their ideas and solutions were quite similar, a fact that was much more apparent because in writing out their thoughts, they had eliminated all emotion and biases from their thinking. Communicating in a way that furthered understanding made them each feel accepted, valued, and supported.

Make the process a team-building opportunity. Solving tensions can refine the department's interpersonal relationships. When confronting discord, maintain a team-oriented tone rather than a personal one. Ask "how can we solve this together?" rather than stating "because of you there is a problem." Cultivating camaraderie with actions that say "we're all in this together" works wonders and elevates your own standing as a leader.

Keep the upside in mind. Effective conflict resolution creates what I call "success momentum." Personality clashes, office politics, petty rivalries, and other negative, energy-sapping distractions are potholes on the road between your organization and the finish line. Left unchecked, any of these factors can drag down the performance of even the most professional and capable people.

Focusing on the best characteristics of ourselves and those around us is easy. It's the ability to roll up our sleeves and dig into problems that separates top performers from everyone else. Managers who successfully deal with conflicts in their organizations will calm unrest, reduce turnover, motivate employees, and accelerate growth.

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