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Just ten or fifteen years ago, people quailed at the idea of conflict. Conflict implied that people were not getting along. Disharmony was discouraged; people kept their feelings hidden from managers, and coworkers secretly took sides against one another. Workers worried that conflict was bad, and this fear was reinforced because when managers discovered conflict they interceded and eliminated it—or tried to.
Today’s business culture has renovated that fear. Now we embrace the concept that conflict is natural, and it is productive. It can foster creativity and spark new ideas. As a departmental or project leader, you must realize that your aim is not to eliminate conflict, but rather to learn effective conflict management techniques that benefit everyone involved. Even so, there are times when conflict will threaten your climate of productivity.
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons, Conflict Barnstar by Jamesontai
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1: Manage Employee Morale
The first order of business for managing conflict effectively is to maintain a healthy morale among your team members. Allow each person to share and discuss his viewpoints freely without fear of reprisal or retaliation. As a manager, your job is to help each person recognize his own value and individual contribution to the team. This is important because it prevents someone from taking rejections or disagreements personally. Create a tool for recognizing individual accomplishments. Ultimately, your team members will respect one another.
What if you’re at a large corporation with an overall toxic environment? Just because there are negative vibes in other departments, don’t let them permeate your department. No matter what’s going on outside your direct area, maintain open and honest lines of communication among your own people.
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2: Identify Operating Procedures
Let people know what is expected of them. Besides their job duties, also tell them ahead of time if, for example, they are expected to attend Monday morning review meetings, put in appearances at the company’s quarterly picnics, or participate in community events. If you have an open-door policy (let’s hope so!), let employees know the best times for approaching you.
Be careful about recognizing someone who excels in only one area; you want to encourage him but you must avoid the appearance of favoritism. Institute supervision sessions with your employees on a regular basis to find out what they do and don’t like about their jobs and help them figure out how to improve. Maybe Zelda would love to do something that Elmo really hates.
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3: Help Staff through Periods of Change
Even good changes are stressful. The effective manager will watch for symptoms resulting from changes. Has the company instituted new rules? If someone within the department or at a higher level has left, whatever the reason, it means change. Address change with your staff. Let them express their feelings. Tell them what to expect.
Watch for personality changes within team members. If someone is much quieter than usual or his productivity plummets, it’s wise to have a one-on-one with him.
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4: Set Ground Rules for Conflict
As part of your departmental or project operations routine, ensure that all employees know what behavior is acceptable in the event of disagreement. Post it on your wall, or print it in your project handbook—just make certain people understand:
- No derogative or abusive language is acceptable.
Each person will have the opportunity to speak.
- Parties cannot interrupt one another. Parties will have an opportunity to respond to accusations.
- If one person’s emotions are too heated, schedule the meeting for a later time.
Issues must be discussed without involving personalities.
- The manager can ask probing questions such as, “What makes you say that?" or “Give me an example of that."
- Parties cannot say things like, “You could never understand this," without further elaboration.
If tears are shed, they will not affect the outcome.
- Either the manager or the person crying can reschedule the meeting for a later time, or take a short break to get crying under control.
- The manager will not become sidetracked by comforting the person and then fail to manage the conflict, nor will the person be ridiculed for tears.
Interventions are welcome before explosions occur.
- The manager’s experience qualifies him to decide whether he will talk with just an individual or meet with everyone in a group—that decision is not open for debate.
- One-on-one meetings can help resolve conflict that arises from one person leaving his work for others to do.
- Personal issues between two employees will become departmental business if they affect productivity or morale within the department.
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons, Sketch of an Angry Guy, by hotguy
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5: Manage the Conflict
One of the last but most important conflict management techniques is to know when and how to confront conflict.
- Use your listening skills to know ahead of time what the issues are. Even if you initially believe that one person is wrong, go on a fact-finding mission—you might be surprised.
- If more than one issue emerges during the discussion, separate the issues. For example, if Zelda complains about not getting enough overtime, and then Zelda says that Elmo gets more overtime because he is favored, there are two issues.
- Keep the discussion focused on the issues, and know when it’s time to close the discussion.
- Afterward, find a way to make your people know that you still hold them in high regard.
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Turning Conflict into Opportunity
The climate of conflict can seem like sunshine breaking through storm clouds. Resolving conflict between two individuals increases their mutual respect and trust. Use conflict to spark creativity, as an opportunity to institute changes, and to get people involved in new and synergistic ways. Sometimes conflict provides just the right opportunity you need to hit the ground running with something new you’ve always wanted to try.
Image credit: sxc.hu, Clouds, by clix