Managing Conflicts like Fireworks

In a team of competent people with strong personalities, conflicts are common. But even if the team was laid back and lazy, conflicts would still be quite common. As long as we continue working with humans, conflicts will be part of work. Maybe someday we will have the privilege of witnessing the types of conflicts that robots can cause.

Conflict is defined by any disagreement that is perceived as a threat by either or both parties. It’s more common among peers but it is also seen among team leaders and team members. You might discover new characteristics in a person by the way they handle conflicts. I have noticed the following types:

  • Those who enjoy “clearing the air” even when there is no air to clear;
  • Those who act “awkward” throughout the conflict but do nothing about it;
  • Those who act awkward throughout the conflict, do nothing about it but make sure that everyone knows about how they are being victimized;
  • Those who depend on someone else to resolve it and pretend that everything is alright till that happens;
  • Those who manage it effectively.

If you have a conflict with someone:

For most people, conflicts are never enjoyable and we try our best to avoid them. But if you find yourself in a conflict with someone, it’s better to resolve it than to dwell in it and watch it ruin performance and productivity. Before any resolution strategies let your emotions stabilize. We say and reveal a lot more than necessary when our emotions take charge of our conversations. Think about the situation objectively.

Are you perceiving the conflict correctly or imagining it? Do you need to get feedback on the situation from someone trusted before you do something about? Why is the resolution important to you? How will you handle the different reactions from the other person so that you keep the situation controlled even if the resolution does not go as planned? What changes are necessary so that you can continue working with the person even if the awkwardness remains? What compromises are necessary for the well being of the project and the relationship? 

Preparing ahead for difficult conversations is a good idea because it could prevent any damage to an already delicate situation and steer you away from an effective resolution.

If the other person initiates a reconciliation, fight the urge to resist the conversation despite the awkwardness and irritation. Be sincerely polite throughout the conversation – someone’s trying to make things right and you are wise if you help them. You style of resolving the conflict will impact the person’s perception of you. They are getting a glimpse into your character just as you are getting a glimpse into theirs. Of course as a professional, your ability to resolve conflicts should also impact your performance evaluation.

When mediating a conflict between others:

When mediating a conflict, the first step for you is to believe that resolving the conflict is not your responsibility. Mediation should be necessary only if individuals have attempted to first resolve the conflict themselves. Even if you are the team leader who is desperate to get your conflict packed team to work, it is not your problem to solve their problem. If you fail to understand this, you are preparing your team for failure by crippling them during learning situations.

Get both sides of the story separately. During this information gathering stage, avoid taking sides even if it is clear that someone is in the right and the other one is messed up. Maintain confidentiality of the details from both parties and other team members. But it is good for both parties to know that you are mediating. It will ensure accuracy in details and it will save you uncomfortable awkwardness. If accounts seem different, lead with clarifying questions without revealing that the other person had provided a different account of the incident or problem.

Once you have gathered the information you need, prepare action steps before meeting them together. Choose a neutral location that is also sound proof and allow them to resolve the conflict on their own. Guide the conversation when needed if they steer away from respectful resolution or compromise attempts. You are fortunate if they can keep their emotions in check. Based on how successful that conversation is, direct action steps for them in case the incident is repeated and hold them accountable.

Don’t expect your team to put it all behind them and move on as though the conflict had never occurred. It’s not impossible for that to happen but it is unlikely. However, help them understand that resolving workplace conflict is a professional necessity and reflected in their performance.

As a manager, encourage disagreements, not necessarily conflicts. But at the same time, don’t be afraid of conflicts. Some of them are called healthy conflicts for a reason. They are like fireworks and can be used to cause damage or light up the sky with better ideas. 


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