The following conflict management question was submitted by a Negotiation Briefings newsletter reader. Program on Negotiation Managing Director Susan Hackley responds:
Question: I’m aware of lots of unresolved personnel issues that seem to be festering in my department, such as complaints about someone who is not doing his share of the work, another person whose griping is causing a drop in morale, and two coworkers who can’t seem to get along.
I’m comfortable negotiating with customers, but I don’t know if I ought to handle conflict management in these difficult, more personal matters.
They seem important to resolve, but shouldn’t I just mind my own business?
Answer: You are right to recognize that handling interpersonal conflicts in the workplace can be difficult. Also, your sense that these issues are having a negative impact on your organization is probably correct.
Unresolved workplace conflicts can impair productivity and employee retention.
Most of us avoid confrontation, so you will be performing a real service if you can help out.
Here are four suggestions:
1. Focus on the problem.
Rather than blaming particular individuals, identify the issues at stake, and invite others to join you in thinking about solutions.
Describe how you feel the current situation affects the organization.
Avoid repeating rumors or hearsay, and focus on the positive—the potential benefits to your organization if you solve the problem. If others agree it’s a problem, ask them to help you brainstorm ways to make it better.
2. Engage in joint problem-solving.
Because others may view a given situation quite differently than you do, start off the discussion by asking open-ended questions and testing your assumptions.
Find out what everyone’s interests are before considering possible solutions.
Would a mediator or trained facilitator be helpful?
Should your HR office or ombudsman be brought in?
3. Promote effective feedback.
Resolve that, in the future, you will confront problems sooner rather than later.
Then help your co-workers learn how to give good feedback so they can express their concerns in a positive manner rather than letting them stew.
People who give good feedback ask questions, stay positive, describe how the situation makes them feel, and give specifics.
They show appreciation when warranted and make suggestions for improving working relationships. In addition, your department has to be an environment where feedback is welcomed and not punished.
Examine why it has been hard to raise thorny issues in the past. Make it easier for people to raise concerns, and plan regular check-in meetings to discuss ongoing issues.
4. Choose a role.
Going forward, you and others can play many different roles in your organization, both formally and informally, to address conflicts as they arise. In his book The Third Side: Why We Fight and How We Can Stop (Penguin, 2000), William Ury describes different ways to help prevent, resolve, and contain conflict.
These include taking on the roles of provider, teacher, bridge builder, mediator, arbiter, equalizer, healer, witness, referee, or peacekeeper.
Choose a role that feels authentic and right for you, whether that means building connections with department members who are new to you or helping to mediate a dispute among members of a task force.
Although not everyone will recognize that your intervention required skillful negotiating, they surely will be aware that you made an important contribution to workplace harmony—and you can take satisfaction in having confronted thorny issues that may have been holding back your department.
What are your favorite conflict management tips and tricks? Share them with our readers in the comments below.
Related Article: Resolve Employee Conflicts with Mediation Techniques
Adapted from “Ask the Negotiation Coach: Intervening in Workplace Conflict,” first published in the April 2011 issue of the Negotiation newsletter.