When we think trying to reduce workplace conflict, we typically think about it in terms of reducing stress, improving retention of good employees, and boosting productivity. In my mind, it’s all a part of creating a thriving and supportive workplace culture. An recent blog post on Mediate.com got me thinking about workplace conflict management in a new way.
Workplace Conflict as Risk
In this post, author Michael Toebe links simmering conflicts to risk management. While Toebe connects low level conflict with decreased productivity, he also notes the way that large blow-ups from unresolved disputes can wreck greater havoc on companies and organizations. Framed this way, it’s clear that unresolved conflict indeed puts a group at risk. From sudden and widespread turnover to retaliation from disgruntled employees conflict creates liabilities that could likely be avoided.
In spite of this, few businesses, nonprofits, and governmental organizations that I work with have robust conflict resolution policies and practices. Many grievance procedures encourage employees to try to resolve issues “at the lowest level possible,” but few give any sort of training or advice for how to actually do this. Contrast this to other systems for managing risk; from safety equipment to the process for using a company car to financial controls to prevent embezzlement, it’s clear that conflict resolution as a risk management tool is largely ignored. Why is that? If poorly managed conflict puts companies and organizations at risk, why isn’t there more investment in prevention and resolution?
Conflict Avoidance Explained
Perhaps, conflict is such a basic human experience that it’s assumed we know how to resolve it in productive ways without specialized training. Perhaps executives tend to be more comfortable with confrontation and don’t understand the difficulties vast portions of their staff may have with simply raising a concern. Perhaps people are busy so rather than taking time out to deal with issues, we fall back on hope and optimism, assuming that if we ignore something it will eventually just go away. Perhaps, we are all have just enough conflict avoidance to rationalize ignoring conflict for any number of reasons…and leave ourselves and our organizations vulnerable to the risks.
Workplace Conflict Solutions
Let’s assume, just for a minute, that you decide to take conflict management seriously as a piece of your overall risk management strategies. What would you do?
- Start talking about it: Think about this like “The Talk” that kids and parents dread with a mix of shared angst, embarrassment, and curiosity. Once you get over the first hurdles, however, it will get easier. Bring conflict into the light as a normal part of living and working in community.
- Listen: In the same way you pay attention to financial statements, tune in and give attention to your colleagues’ frustrations, how they’re handling them, and the impacts they might be having. When you think you have a complete picture, go back and listen some more. It will take time for staff to feel safe to be honest. Those who are most reluctant to talk or who tell you everything is fine might be the keys to TRULY understanding the lay of the land inside your business or organization.
- Think: There is no reason to go rushing right in and try to solve everything. Be thoughtful about your responses. Find a process that works for you to make sense of what you’ve learned as you listen for conflict in your organization. Make a list, map them out, put them into a spreadsheet or add watercolors. Do what works for you to uncover patterns, find hot-spots, and prioritize needs and next steps. Consider this advice from Mark Gerzon and the Harvard Business Review. Look for conflicts that are both hot and cold, and consider which might be warm or how you can moderate the extreme ones to make them more approachable.
- Get Support: I’m a big proponent of DIY solutions for many things and… there are times that calling a professional for support is well worth the money. I, for one, gave up on doing my own taxes years ago, deciding that the money spent on a professional’s expertise and my own peace of mind was well worth if for the savings of time and stress. When my roof leaks, I call a roofer. When I need accounting help, I call an accountant. When you are trying to build systems to better manage workplace conflict, call a professional. Find a professional with skills not just for mediation and facilitation to help your group through the rough patches but with skills to train you for the future. The groups I work with say that while the resolution itself is critically important, the skills they learned along the way will have the most lasting effects on their organizational culture. Referral sites like Mediate.com or local professional mediation associations can help. Vet your conflict professional carefully, ask for references and make sure you find the right match for your organization and its needs.
- Stick With It: As with anything else, making substantive changes in your conflict culture will take time and careful attention. It is not enough to start a few conversations, host a training, and move on. Create a schedule for regularly checking back with your staff members. Include questions about conflict in your one on one meetings with key staff. Dig deeply into the layers of your organization and repeat this cycle.
Whatever you decide is best, I wish you conflict, well managed, productive conflict that helps uncover weaknesses and oversights that might have otherwise gone unnoticed. I hope you will learn skills that allow you to be hard on problems and easy on people. I hope that as you delve deeply into diverse perspectives that your team’s relationships and trust improve and foster the next wave of commitment and innovation for your organization. When you’re ready to manage the risks of conflict in your organization, I hope you’ll call me and explore whether Learning Through Difference LLC is the right fit for you.