Interpersonal conflict can make even the best job miserable to perform. Conflict can wear you down day to day, interfering with your willingness to engage fully in your work. At its worst it creates turnover, costing both the company and the person who leaves because he or she can’t take it anymore. But how do you get around it, through it, maybe even find some peace with conflict at work?
Leadership guru Stephen Covey would say that you should “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” He would tell you that it’s incumbent upon you to try to understand the other person first, whether giving you the same benefit or not. Sometimes it helps to name it, to identify the type of conflict – to better know what to do about it. And often the feeling of conflict becomes less intense when you better understand what’s going on.
Behavioral style differences- One of you has a strong desire to get directly to the bottom line, another likes to tell stories and sometimes goes off track, one of your team is slow and methodical and likes predictability, and yet another is obsessed with being right and analyzing the details. When you and the other people on your work team have different, even incompatible, behavioral styles you can reduce unnecessarily conflict by “translating” your information and presenting it in the way that they prefer. Choosing to modify your behavior is the biggest gift that you can give another person, and to the larger goal of accomplishing the task at hand.
Values differences – People are motivated differently from one another, meaning that they find different things important. Your company can help this potential conflict-generating situation by identifying certain values or decision criteria that they expect all employees to share. But even with the common ground of shared company values, one of you might be driven by the need for autonomy and independence. One of you might be more intent on helping other people than on making money. One of you might be motivated by learning new information (and may be changing things on a regular basis), and still another by following existing rules and maintaining the status quo. You can reduce conflict when you understand what’s important to the other person and find the connections between your goals and their values. If you don’t know – ask. Seriously. Ask, “What’s most important to you in this situation?”
Aptitude differences- Some people are “inter-personally tone deaf” and simply don’t realize that what they are saying and/or doing might be highly upsetting to other people. Some people are not tuned into nonverbal cues to notice when the discussion is going South, and fast. There’s a segment of your company that naturally intellectualizes about things, and sees potential rules to be established – and they follow existing rules to the letter. A few of your colleagues have a talent for knowing what action to take, even if the circumstances aren’t ideal and the materials and/or methods have to be improvised. Improvisation? Action without planning? Planning without action? Running roughshod over employees and peers? No wonder you’re upset!
Cultural differences- Cultural difference can stem from economic class, race, ethnicity, religion, educational background, or even prior workplace experiences. Culture is demonstrated through a group of shared behaviors that people do by habit, without thinking about them. It’s just “the way it’s done.” Styles of business dress, choosing to write an email rather than pick up the phone, working late and coming in early – these are habits of behavior that reflect company culture. And especially the new people on your team are at risk of conflict unless and until they adapt to behave in the same way that everyone else does.
Differences in information – Sometimes the parties engaged in conflict don’t have access to the same set of data. If they did, the evidence would likely send their thinking in a more similar direction. The problem with this type of conflict is that if people are already shutting down in their communication as a byproduct of prior conflict, they often aren’t disposed to sharing information. Some people won’t be willing to talk at all. More shared information generally leads to better discussion and decision making.
A few words in support of conflict
Disagreement is never going away in the workplace, nor should it. If everyone in the business is a “yes man” important factors can be missed in decision making. Bad decisions are the result if the process is like a speeding locomotive. rushing past dissent to a quick conclusion. If everyone around the table thinks in the same way about the same things, what is the reason to have multiple people around the table? Different perspectives, the stops in the momentum for the Devil’s Advocate, and the reminders to include certain factors in the process – differences make the output better.
Disagreement need not be disagreeable. Analyze and maybe even attack the information, but not the people. Allow due process for divergent points of view to emerge, and use facilitation tools if need be to pull the group together into agreed-upon actions.
If pointless conflict is going to be resolved or at least minimized, someone has to be willing to come to the table first, and the only person you can control is you. Is this fair? Perhaps not, but ultimately you need to determine what’s more important – is it your status compared to the other person, a “win” you can claim? Or are the company goals and customers’ needs paramount? When you add fuel to a workplace conflict it’s possible that you’re making it too much about you, your preferences and your ego, and that’s not an appropriate center for business behavior.