Once you’ve identified the signs of an upcoming conflict at work, you need to resolve it before it burst. I’m going to kill the dream right away: conflicts don’t resolve by themselves. You have to make it happen.
Conflicts are sensitive subjects for most people, whether they fight it or decide to flee. Some cultures even find it rude and disrespectful to disagree or oppose someone, especially at work, in a situation of hierarchy. Wouldn’t be easier to consider conflicts like any other problem to be solved, with a specific methodology? You’re in luck, we’ve gathered all the literature on the topic to craft you the perfect guide to solve conflicts at work.
Let’s take an example. You’ve recently been hired to handle a 2-year project that just started. The team seems nice overall, but you feel some resistance from one of the members – let’s call him Alex. Rumours warn you that this person was actually seeking this position, but even if he was showing a lot of enthusiasm, the management decided he wasn’t senior enough so his application was turned down. How do you handle it?
1 - Talk about the conflict
I won’t say it enough, communication is key. I’m not talking about warning the whole company or complain at every coffee break. On the contrary, communication should always be respectful and constructive.
In our example, I would first try to gather information about Alex from your own boss and/or the person that hired you (and not him). Try to get feedback on the way he usually acts within a team, what he likes or dislikes… but be subtle or people will ask questions and the entire company may end up getting involved in the situation.
Then you should talk to the interested party. Again, subtility is the rule, you don’t want him to feel attacked. Putting a situation of conflict into words is always a good start to resolving it.
Try something like: “Alex, I have felt some resistance from your part [or even aggressivity if applicable], am I misinterpreting or is there something we should talk about?”
2 - Put yourself in the other person’s shoes
In a situation of conflict, every part feels in its own right and tends to defend his or her position. As a result, your empathy for the other one will most certainly fall to its lowest. In order to start moving the lines and restore some empathy in the relationship, start by putting yourself in the other person’s shoes, and ask him or her to do the same.
Even if it’s not directly your fault – you’re not the one who made the decision to hire yourself – it’s very easy to imagine why Alex would feel reluctant about you. You embody both his dream and his failure. Wouldn’t you feel the same if you were him?
Don’t stop there, ask him to do the same: “I understand your situation. Now, could I ask you to do the same for me? I’m new in this project and this company, and this position means a lot to me. How would you feel if you were me? I really need all of project team members to be 100% onboard.”
3 - Ask the very person involved in this conflict to find a solution
If you define a solution on your side, chances are that the person involved won’t fully agree or apply them. You want this person to get his or her hands “dirty” in solving the conflict – it’s much harder to reject something you first agreed on.
In our example, simply ask Alex what would make him feel better about this project. Maybe working closer to you would get him the experience he was originally lacking to handle the project. Or on the contrary, giving him more responsibility would make him more comfortable to learn and grow. Another project may be coming up, on which you could refer him based on the first months working together – on the condition that he actually gets better involved. Agreeing on a solution will immediately make things easier.
4 - Call on a third person
If you can’t handle the situation by yourself, you should seek out from some help. The key here is to call in somebody that both parties respect and trust (if possible, outside of your direct hierarchy). In some companies, one person (or more) is in charge of employee protection and social dialogue. While bound to professional and with total neutrality, this person can help you reach a settlement.
In other cases, the management or the HR department might offer you the services of an external mediator. Being external (and hence neutral) to the organization, a mediator will have better chances of resolving the conflict – if he or she succeeds in gaining the two parties’ trust. Indeed, the mediator’s ultimate role is to do anything and everything necessary to assist parties to reach an agreement, by educating them, questioning and clarifying the situation, remembering the roles and responsibilities of each individual, etc. However, he or she can’t define a settlement by him/herself, the persons involved in the conflict ultimately have to find an agreement.
5 - Move on from the conflict
If you’ve done all of the above and nothing’s worked, the solution may be for one of the two people involved to move on: go and work in another department, or even leave the company.
As I said before, Alex might be interested in working on this new project that is about to start. Or on the contrary, agree to leave with a comfortable package from the company. Beware: the risk there is to set the example of bad behaviour getting people what they want.
Conflicts should be handled with diligence yet precaution. The good thing about a conflict is that when overtaken, it can create an even better work relationship, based on communication and trust. But in order to reach this situation, you must act with kindness and respect, and inspire the other person to do so: those are the principles of Nonviolent Communication, a communication process I strongly encourage you to go into.
Stop fearing conflicts and start handling them!
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