Conflict is a natural part of life, and how we react to it can greatly impact our relationships. As managers, we know all too well that conflict resolution in the workplace is vital for anyone hoping to nurture positive professional relationships and build a thriving, high-performing team. But knowing that conflict is inevitable and actually understanding how to handle it are two very different things.
Our guest today is Carol Bowser, an expert in workplace conflict. After practicing employment law for several years, Carol founded Conflict Management Strategies. With over 20 years of experience, Carol has identified universal themes about workplace conflict and how to navigate it. She shared some of the main causes of conflict, provided insights on reframing our thinking around conflict, and offered strategies for actively engaging in conflict more effectively.
Notice Different Responses to Conflict
Let's start by acknowledging that some individuals thrive on drama, finding excitement in tense situations or stirring up worries. Others find conflict so uncomfortable that they’ll do anything to avoid it. Carol suggests that rather than viewing conflict as a destructive or exhilarating force, it's helpful to reframe it as an informative force. Conflict arises when individuals have emotional reactions to matters that are important to them. As a manager, wouldn't it be beneficial to uncover unspoken concerns and discover what truly matters to your team and stakeholders?
As you pay attention, you’ll likely notice that conflict can elicit various emotional responses like anger, impatience, and withdrawal. Every organization and team has their own acceptable range of expressing emotions. However, dismissing someone's perspective by telling them to calm down undermines their feelings, making them feel unheard and unrecognized. Minimizing their concerns or relying solely on logic can discourage open communication and create a sense of learned helplessness. (Why disagree if no one listens to you anyways!) Instead, use the opportunity to explore what’s underlying these emotions.
Stop Striving for Win-Win Conflict Resolution
Carol believes that the concept of "healthy conflict" and striving for a "win-win situation" can be met with mixed reactions. When working with individuals who have experienced traumatic events or negative experiences, it's important to consider their need for self-preservation, which may involve minimizing or withdrawing from conflict. Instead of encouraging everyone to fully engage in the conflict and its resolution, Carol reminds us to prioritize curiosity about different opinions and levels of resistance. This can provide valuable insights and indicate if folks aren’t feeling safe to contribute.
This doesn’t mean we can ignore the professional experience, gut instincts, expertise and training that others bring to the table. We always want to ensure that their ideas are reflected in decision-making processes. The difference is that we should prioritize understanding and collaboration rather than focusing solely on a winning solution that works equally well for everyone. Setting unrealistic expectations of always achieving a win-win can lead to unmet expectations and therefore further conflict.
Accept the Power Dynamics
The workplace is a complex environment of power dynamics. It's important to recognize that managers, especially new ones, may not always have the decision-making authority or influence they desire. It's a common misconception that managers have ultimate decision-making authority, as they often report to someone above them who may have their own reporting obligations. Even in family-owned businesses, managers may still need to justify their decisions to their spouse or others who weren't involved in the decision-making process.
To navigate this, managers should clarify their scope of decision-making authority and communicate it appropriately. For example, you might say, “I’ll need to run that up the chain.” Or “unfortunately, that is outside the scope of what we’ve been asked to do.” This let’s people know you’re hearing them but aren’t in a position to make the decision. As Carol noted, while you may not always have the decision-making authority, it's important to address the issue tactfully and explore possibilities within the organization's bandwidth and strategic priorities.
Risk Tolerances Vary When Making Decisions
It's also important to consider individual and team members' risk tolerances, as well as the risk tolerance of other stakeholders involved in the decision. For instance, Carol highlighted that certain professions like lawyers, IT experts, and building inspectors are trained to identify risks. Instead of brushing off a team member’s concerns, it's important to acknowledge and appreciate their professional point of view. They may have past experiences or expertise that is giving them a reason to be concerned or take an opposing stance.
Understanding and managing conflict is a vital skill for any individual, especially managers. Managers should pay attention to the communication they receive, both direct and subtle, to fully grasp what their team members want them to know, understand, and appreciate. By promoting open communication, acknowledging emotions, and addressing conflicts constructively, we can build stronger relationships and create a more harmonious work environment.
Listen to the entire episode HERE to learn more about conflict management.
Keep up with Carol:
- Check out her website for more here
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