Judging by what makes news these days, conflict is a prevalent human condition and one that is responsible for a great deal of stress and anxiety in the world today. And judging by the level of conflict going on around us, one could make the assumption that as a species, we are not real good at figuring out and resolving these situations. In the staffing world, it’s interesting to note that our clients often start a job interview with “situational” or “behavioral” questions centered around how you, as an employee or contractor, handle conflict. The very fact that you are being evaluated on your ability to answer a question around this issue is evidence of just how important it is to organizations. According to CPP Inc., publishers of the Myers-Briggs Assessment, in 2008, U.S. employees spent on average 2.8 hours per week dealing with conflict. That accounts for approximately $359 billion in paid hours (based on average hourly earnings of $17.95), or put another way, 385 million working days. The economic impact is obvious, but the emotional strain and stress may not be, and is just as important. So how do we manage workplace conflict? The following are some great strategies for managing conflict when it arises:
Rip off the Bandage!
Covering up the wound and ignoring the conflict is the worst thing that can happen. Most of us don’t enjoy dealing with uncomfortable situations and it is easier to think that things will just fix themselves, or fade away with time. The truth is they won’t. In fact, what is likely to happen is that the transgressions responsible for the initial conflict will only escalate, causing direct stress to the participants and indirect stress to those who work alongside them. Workplace stress can lead to increased sick days, personal leave and in the worst cases, employee turnover
Communication is essential to any conflict and often lack of communication or misunderstandings are the prerequisites for conflict to occur. So if you don’t understand someone’s viewpoints or you can’t for the life of you understand what upset the other party, just ask. But don’t forget, how you ask is just as important as what you ask. Try “Say, I was wondering why you did X yesterday?” or “I believe you are upset with me and I’m not sure I understand why?” These tend to work better than “What the #$%@ is wrong with you?”
Be Prepared to Take Some Blame
It is very rare for one party to be completely blameless in any conflict and once you have asked, be prepared to take some blame. The best way to diffuse a conflict is to admit some culpability, apologize and explain a) why you behaved the way you did or b) what may have been the cause of the misunderstanding. It’s amazing how as soon as you are willing to take some responsibility, the other party will do the same.
Write the Rules
Once you’ve had the conversation and are comfortable with the results, make sure you finish the discussion with some rules around further interactions. Reiterating what were the causes of the conflict in the first place by promising to do your best to avoid them in the future is a great way to ensure that you don’t get into old habits. Say “Moving forward, I’ll be more respectful of your ideas in meetings” or “I won’t make disparaging remarks about your favourite (fill in the blank) in the future.”
Finally, conflict in the office can take on a life of its own and can be complex and intimidating to address. But the costs can weigh heavily on your well-being and to the bottom line of the company. If you absolutely don’t know how to move forward, there are always folks who can help. Your direct supervisor or someone in HR will be able to assist you and if you are temporary or on contract, don’t forget to ask your staffing agent for help. They will not only give you great ideas, but they will know how to escalate things appropriately.