70-80% of our waking lives is spent in interpersonal communication. Misunderstandings are the main cause of relational conflict (for example, according to the 2002 National Center for Health Statistics, 43% of all marriages end within 15 years). Employers are also highly vulnerable to communication difficulties within their organizations as evidenced by the growing emphasis on the need for workplace training on conflict management. The following statistics are from Penn Behavioral Health Corporate Services*:

  • 30-43% of managerial time is spent mediating conflict between employees.
  • More than 65% of performance problems result from strained relationships between employees.
  • It costs 1.5 times the position salary to replace an employee.
  • More than 33% of managers spend more than 10% of their time handling workplace conflict.
  • 44% of managers spend more than 20% of their time mired in conflict-related issues.
  • Workplace conflict negatively impacts: performance, cohesiveness, morale, diversity, retention, motivation, and safety.
  • The negativity of workplace conflict is contagious.

So what does this mean for executives who are responsible for the leadership, motivation, and harvesting of the highest potential of their employees?

The prevalence of human conflict and the toll it can take on an organization’s productivity and workplace happiness means that leaders must be excellent mediators. Furthermore, leaders must also be skilled in managing their own interpersonal conflicts, as the stress and energy-depletion caused by personal strife hinder one’s ability to perform at his/her peak in the workplace.   

Conflict is Inevitable

Most people dislike engaging in, or managing, conflict.  But you must know your enemy. Battles are most likely to occur when there is a combustible mixing of:

  • Individual personalities most likely to engage in conflict (self-righteous, black-and-white thinkers, inflexible)
  • Environments most likely to support conflict (stressful, uncontrolled, fast-paced, fluctuating, competitive, with unintegrated staff)
  • Situations most likely to create conflict (real or perceived competition, unresolved problems, personality clashes, misread intentions, a managerial focus upon conflict)

Intervene Early

Breakdown in communication, distrust and disrespect, skirmishes, discontentment, changes in emotions or behaviors, and complaints are all early warning signs of impending conflict.  This is the time to address the problem.  Discuss the problematic situation with the involved employees using effective dialogue—speak to individuals using language they can hear and using a style that is appropriate to the individual and the situation you’re dealing with. Confrontations should be controlled and leaders must maintain a solution-oriented focus. The outcome of any successful conflict-intervention should always include the building of trust and respect and identifying mutual goals.

Resolution

When trying to resolve a conflict with or between employees, the following suggestions are helpful to keep in mind:

  • Meet face-to-face. Clearly articulate the causes of the conflict to avoid confusion.  Identify each party’s responsibility.
  • State why you want the conflict resolved. Ask others to state why they want the conflict resolved.
  • Problem solve and brainstorm solutions to the conflict. Define a plan that begins with a first step. Identify what each party agrees to do. Stick to the issues at hand and don’t wander off topic.  And be prepared for re-negotiation during this process.
  • Know that the collaborative win/win style of conflict resolution tends to be the most successful.
  • Commit to rebuilding trust.  How can biases be dropped?  How can respect be earned?
  • Solidify the compromise by re-stating the “who, what, when, where” of the agreement.

It’s worth noting that sometimes it is better to let your employees solve interpersonal problems independently unless you are asked to arbitrate the conflict. Use your judgment to ascertain whether this situation is one that calls for intervention.  Avoid enabling, counseling, taking sides, ignoring early stages, postponing assertive behaviors, tolerance of dissention, and pacification of your employees.

Reflection

Great leaders have emotional intelligence and monitor their own conflict styles.  Ask yourself these questions:

  • Am I respectful?
  • Am I clear?
  • Do I encourage dialogue?
  • Do I communicate with my staff?
  • Do I document and enforce breaches?
  • Am I a teacher to my employees?
  • Am I able to compromise?
  • Do I revisit compromises and agreements?
  • Do I remain focused on the mutual goals?

In closing, we encourage the embracing of inevitable conflict as an opportunity for personal and professional growth. As a leader, it is your job to guide others through it to a better place.  Whether it is peace in the home or peace in the workplace, the ability to help yourself and others resolve conflict definitely make this world a better place!

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” (Martin Luther King, Jr).

Thank you to Penn Behavioral Health for inspiring much of the content of this article.


*Penn Behavioral Health slides (2008)

Photo Source - EFA

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