Leadership

Talking Shop: How to identify and manage workplace conflict

Help your team succeed by managing personal conflicts

If it weren't for people, the workplace would be very easy to manage. People bring their unique values, experiences, ambitions, and personalities to the workplace. This mix can often result in innovative ideas and a more flexible team environment. However, if not managed properly, it can also result in conflict, poor team morale, and poor performance.

New managers often view conflict as a problem that needs to be eliminated. Unfortunately, trying to eliminate conflict is futile and the attempt to do so can actually be detrimental to the team. Effective managers learn to accept and respect workplace conflict and work to maximize its benefits while minimizing its negative effect.

Workplace conflict, if left unchecked, can be devastating to a team or organization. Conflict can often cause:
  • Lost productivity: Team members preoccupied with interpersonal conflicts and unmanaged differences of opinion will not maintain the LAN as well or provide quality customer service.
  • Perception costs: Teams with members who don't seem to get along or who openly challenge each other will often be viewed as less competent and trustworthy by others within the organization.
  • Attrition within the team: Unmanaged conflict within a team can result in good people growing weary of the negative environment and leaving for other jobs.

People generally find both their greatest joy and frustration in dealing with others. This is particular true with work environments. How can we manage the frustrations that people feel toward each other so that the team operates as smoothly as possible? Here are a few suggestions.

Balance creativity and stability
Managing conflict involves finding a balance between creativity and stability. Anyone who has worked with a group of highly creative people has experienced the energy created by new and innovative ideas and also the chaos that often causes. There are also workplaces that focus so much on efficiency and stability that very little gets accomplished beyond the routine and ordinary. New IT managers need to find a middle ground between a creative and often volatile work environment and a stable environment where work tasks are clear and are completed consistently and on schedule.

If team conflicts seem to be ongoing or cyclical in nature, take a closer look at how the team is operating and how people are interacting. The real source for conflicts can often be hidden from view. For example, two team members may be dealing with interpersonal issues, but their problems may manifest themselves in constant bickering about work issues. It is important to look at both the overall functioning of the team as well as what is happening at the micro-level (individual priorities, personality traits, and communication patterns) to determine how to handle conflicts.

Encourage controlled conflict
Encourage controlled conflict about the work and discourage conflict based on personal issues and personalities. Conflict based on differences of opinion and perspective about work-related issues can be productive and can help to build tolerance and patience among members. However, disagreements based on personal issues can be debilitating for any team. If left unchecked, they will usually worsen and will evidently involve other members who start taking sides. Personal conflicts require more immediate intervention, even if it is just to negotiate a truce until a more permanent settlement can be reached.

Develop a process
Develop a process for team members to use in dealing with conflict. Team members should understand what the ground rules are for addressing conflict within the team. Managers can play a very important role in establishing how disagreements are handled by modeling appropriate behavior and setting rules of engagement and sticking to them. One critical ground rule must be that personal attacks are not an acceptable way to handle work-related conflict.

How one shop manages team conflict
The following scenario helps to illustrate some of these points. Jack is a LAN administrator for a small company in the Midwest. He has only been in his position for a short time, but has quickly seen that the morale within his team is very poor.

Team meetings have consisted of silence with an occasional outburst of bickering when Jack mentions an issue that is particularly sensitive. Also, LAN users have complained to him about poor help desk service and a general lack of enthusiasm shown by team members. Jack feels that he will not be able to improve the quality of service or team morale unless he can reduce the negativity shown by members.

Jack approached the company's human resources director to find out more about his team and to get some ideas on how to improve things. The human resource director reported that the LAN team was traditionally viewed within the organization as being disorganized and not dedicated to good service. She added her personal view that the LAN team seemed in constant conflict and that the negative environment had lead to many members leaving for other jobs. She suggested that Jack identify the sources for the disagreements and develop a conflict resolution strategy for the team.

Jack began to examine how the team operated, both internally and externally. From talking with team members and LAN users, he learned that some disagreements were personal in nature but that most seemed to be work-related. Jack made a list of the work-related issues he had identified and developed his strategy for creating a more positive work culture within the team. He scheduled weekly meetings where discussion focused on the identification of work goals and priorities. He allowed disagreement by members during these meetings as long as it did not become personal in nature.

Whenever a team member confronted him, he focused on modeling the type of behavior he wanted to see from others. He listened to the issues being raised, acknowledged the concerns, and then responded with his own perspective clearly and calmly. He also reinforced appropriate conflict resolution within the team whenever it occurred.

Over a period of several months, Jack noticed that team members would respond to the structure he was trying to give the team. Individual bickering lessened and team members were becoming more comfortable with communicating disagreements during the team meetings and in listening to each other's viewpoints and concerns. He also noticed that conflicts of a personal nature were lessening as the overall work environment improved.

The moral of this story is that conflict can be very healthy for a team, as long as it is well managed. Instituting a process for conflict resolution that people can feel comfortable with will enhance the positive aspects while minimizing the negative aspects of disagreement.

Additional resources
To learn more about dealing with workplace conflict, check out:

Final thoughts
As long as human beings come into contact, there will be conflict. Most people want things to go their way and will try very hard to mold reality to fit their priorities and beliefs. Workplace conflict, when managed well, can be harnessed to create an energized and creative work environment. Effective managers will create a structured and identifiable process for resolving conflict within their teams. This process will promote the orderly expression of priorities and beliefs, a tolerance for the views and priorities of others, and commitment to team success.
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