Conflict is one of the most underutilized career tools. When conflict presents itself, you want to run, but I suggest that you don’t.
Many professionals go to great lengths to duck conflict. That’s because, as Peter T. Colemen and Robert Ferguson explain in the book “Making Conflict Work,” it “elicits anxiety.” Yet, managing conflict is absolutely necessary for achieving your own professional as well as the organization’s goals. Those could include getting a raise, remaining within budget by reducing employee benefits and acquiring a company to fill a gap in your product line.
Here are 6 tips for how to leverage conflict as a powerful tool in the workplace:
1) Accept it as a naturally occurring phenomenon. When human beings work together, there will be disagreements in points of view, values, methodologies and how work should be assigned and rewarded. Yet there’s the tendency to assume you somehow caused the conflict, it’s your fault and you want to hide. Instead, embrace it as what comes with the territory.
2) Stay calm. You can control your anxiety level. That in turn transmits the message that others in the loop will be expected to keep the lid on their emotions. That is exactly why companies now are recognizing the productivity and cost-benefit of soft skills. The higher the organization’s level of Emotional Intelligence (EI), the more efficiently the members will solve problems, including disputes. A side benefit of resolving conflict could be boosting the organization’s overall EI level.
A sign of calm is beginning the conversation in a neutral manner. For example, “We in the unit saw that you did not approve the compensation increases. When is convenient for you to explain your reasons? Our Friday lunch hour is open.” This frames the dispute as a business matter, not in terms of right or wrong or personalities.
3) Analyze the conflict. Often the form the conflict takes masks its actual source. That’s why some of the best negotiators are master sleuths. They dig for data. Questions to ask include:
• What concrete event triggered this specific conflict
• Who is angry at whom and why
• What parties perceive they are not getting what they want and what is that
• What parties perceive they are going to lose what they have and what is that
• What are the most likely points of leverage. For example, that might be appointing a trusted hourly worker as chief negotiator or hiring a third-party professional mediator.
4) Focus on what matters. Your professional objective or the organization’s in a dispute may be big or it may be petty. But it is real and that is where the focus should be. A classic example is that the organization does not want negative publicity about possible age discrimination in the alleged small raise it offered the Baby Boomer manager. Together the two parties can opt for a confidentiality agreement if a 24 percent raise is granted.
This resolution may sound like common sense. The obstacle to its execution is frequently that the dynamics of the conflict become personal. Tactics to defuse that negative energy include having an empathetic attitude. The person requesting the raise uses language like “I can understand your mission to reduce costs.” Another way is to meet off-site where power relations are less obvious.
5) Don’t assume there is always common ground. It is an adage of negotiations to search for common ground. However, that can badly backfire, increasing the level of negative emotions. The head of human resources might be tempted to frame the situation of benefits reduction as ensuring the survival of the company. Without that, obviously, the workers will lose their jobs. However, the workers have sized up the situation in a different way. They are ready to go through the ordeal of looking for other jobs with adequate benefits if their current benefits are cut.
Sometimes there is no common ground. That piece of negotiation theory and practice has to be ignored. Instead, the approach may come down to creativity. In exchange for the reduction in benefits, workers will receive tradeoffs such as ability to telecommute 50 percent of work schedule and their birthday off, paid as a holiday.
6) Document. America is a litigious nation. That reflects that it is the global headquarters for capitalism. Capitalism operates on contract law. By nature, therefore, many citizens think and then behave in legalistic terms. A small dispute could wind up in the hands of a regulatory agency or an individual or class action lawsuit.
Before, during and after a conflict, the details of relevant transactions might be wise to document. For example, in the process of a conventional performance review, the worker requests a 25 percent raise. You as manager indicate to consider that you would need a detailed plan for accomplishments in the next six months, with the forecasted results quantified. That recommendation should be inserted into the employee’s file. That can prevent a dispute later about compensation. If it does occur, you have in black and white the terms and conditions for future raise negotiations.
Being known as the go-to person for resolving conflict
Success in landing a good job, holding onto it and being promoted depends on how well you differentiate yourself. One way of doing that is becoming known as the go-to person for negotiating disputes. Calmly. To the general satisfaction of all parties. And with the least damage to all parties, including the reputation of the organization. That in itself is a major incentive to not avoid conflict. Being comfortable in that emotion-laden territory can become a powerful brand for you.
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