Most managers and employees fear conflict at work because it can reduce productivity, negatively impact teamwork, and consume valuable time that could be better spent elsewhere. Unfortunately, conflict is inevitable, since there are always differences of opinion and interests in the workplace, so we might as well learn to deal with it.
How does conflict arise? There are several common causes of conflict in the workplace: interpersonal relations, organizational issues, change, and external sources. It usually starts out with two or more employees avoiding each other or just harboring negative feelings but can eventually develop into outright hostility and even violence.
Interpersonal conflict is the most obvious source of dissention in the workplace. Differences in work and personality styles commonly clash, increasing miscommunications and anger, which in turn reduce productivity as workers avoid and withhold information from one another. Add to this the fact that more than onethird of all workers come from cultures outside majority Anglo backgrounds, and cross-cultural differences in communications and values are added to the mix.
Organizational conflict can develop whenever there are differing interests, which can be a daily occurrence. Common examples are differences in interests between supervisors and employees, between departments, or between generations.
Change in the workplace brings constant conflicts between those who are more comfortable staying with the status quo and those who embrace change as a sign of progress. If the reason for the change is clearly articulated, more people will be willing to adjust. However, too often change is presented without a clear purpose.
External factors can also lead to conflict in the workplace. Economic pressures are often generated by changing markets, domestic and foreign competition, and governmental intervention. Be constantly on the lookout for changes to relationships with external parties.
Successful organizations embrace conflict as an inevitable product of diverse human beings working together. Smart leaders encourage differences of opinions and work styles as a way to increase creativity. They also have a clear forum for addressing differences before they begin to negatively impact productivity. This forum usually involves asking the manager to mediate disputes without assigning blame or guilt.
Mediation is a systematic process of allowing each of two parties in conflict to state their positions to the manager and the other party without interruption. Then the manager enables the two parties to try to develop their own solution. If no solution can be reached, the manager will impose a solution, with each party recognizing that both are likely to be somewhat dissatisfied with the result. It is for this reason that about 85 percent of the time this process results in two conflicting parties developing and agreeing to a resolution to the conflict that had previously negatively impacted them and the company.
Managers must constantly be on the lookout for interpersonal conflicts through surveys, interviews, and focus groups. Employees must be willing to report disputes that they are unable to resolve. Remember, you can’t avoid disputes and dissention, but you can mediate them with or without management getting involved. Once you have a system for handling it, you may even start looking forward to conflict in the workplace!
Michael Soon Lee, MBA, is a trained mediator, author, and speaker who teaches companies how to develop an atmosphere that welcomes conflict and differences in the workplace. He also teaches managers a process for mediating disputes between employees and departments and with external organizations.
Be sure to attend Michael Soon Lee's Lab Manager Academcy webinar "Resolving Conflict in the Workplace" on Wednesday, April 3, 2013 or afterward at www.labmanager.com/resolvingconflict, to watch the archived video