BY AMY COOLEY
Wherever there are people, there is potential for conflict—and it seems that conflict has been at an all-time high lately. As you think about rebuilding your team and regrowing your business, take some time to consider how to foster a harmonious workplace.
The strongest organizations bring together leaders and members with varying backgrounds, personalities, skillsets, strengths, and opinions. It is inevitable that there will be some level of conflict at times. Approached correctly, difference, disagreement, and debate can lead to better decision-making, improved buy-in to common goals and planned actions, and an even greater sense of shared purpose and mission. The more diverse (in all kinds of ways) your team is, the better equipped you will be to handle the challenges you choose and those that come your way.
But what happens when conflict erupts? How do you recognize the warning signs, and how can you manage it before the damage is done? The consequences of conflict gone out of control can be dire for your business. Lack of collaboration can reduce the quality of your work and your product. When tension becomes visibly ugly, it’s hard to keep it from showing outside of your organization, which can damage your brand as an employer as well as your company’s overall image. Your team might suffer not only loss of productivity, but also loss of good employees altogether. In some cases, you may even risk creating a hostile work environment.
Katie Shonk, in her blog for the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School, suggests there are three primary types of conflict in the workplace:
Task Conflict is typically about concrete issues related to the work at hand. This could include different understandings of company policies or procedures, disputes over who is responsible for what, or even varying perceptions of facts.
“When tension becomes visibly ugly, it’s hard to keep it from showing outside of your organization, which can damage your brand.”
Relationship Conflict simply means that people who may not naturally “click” as friends or in personal relationships are brought together in the workplace, having little else in common. People with different personalities, interests, or tastes sometimes struggle to understand each other or get along.
Value Conflict, exactly as it sounds, comes from deep differences in values and identity. As you can imagine, the sources of this kind of conflict include religion, politics, ethics, and other core beliefs.
Recognizing Warning Signs
The more in tune you are with your team, the more likely you are to recognize warning signs. Some hallmarks of brewing trouble include dysfunctional meetings, detectable anger and anxiety, loss of productivity or quality, high turnover, inappropriate communication, recurring disagreements, and loss of trust.
Does your maintenance team consistently fail to meet expectations? Do you see cliques forming within the office staff? Arguments that are characterized by personal attacks rather than healthy debate? Is there resentment or palpable tension amongst the chauffeur team? Trust your gut. If you think there might be something wrong, now is the time to nip it in bud.
One of my mother’s favorite proverbs is an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. The first and best remedy for conflict is prevention, so I’ll start there—what can you do to ward it off before it grows and becomes toxic? There are many ways to encourage a healthy work environment:
Make Thoughtful Hires: When bringing new team members on board, consider not only how their quantifiable skills and experience will add to the quality of your business, but also how their soft skills and personalities will both fit and enhance your culture.
Build Community: Spending time together outside of the context of your day-to-day work is a great way for your team to get to know each other, share common experiences, and create positive interactions. Host a retreat, have a team dinner, participate in a service project together, gather for a Zoom cocktail hour. Whatever it is, take the pressure off, and have fun!
Write Clear Policies: An updated employee handbook that includes your mission, core values, and clear policies will go a long way toward preventing or settling conflict, especially on the task conflict level. Having policies and behavioral guidelines in plain and direct language will make it easier for the whole team to recognize your expectations, as well as making it easier for you to address issues when they arise.
Communicate: In our October 2020 column V click here, we talked about open-door policies, and how encouraging open communication between management and team members and how transparency and receptiveness foster trust and employee engagement.
Engage: Whether you manage a few chauffeurs or a larger company with multiple departments, the more engaged you are with your team, the more successful your open-door policy will be. And the better you know your team, the more your “Spidey sense” will tingle at the earliest signs of discord, giving you a better opportunity to address the issue both early and head on. This may require a little extra effort with a disjointed team, but it’s worth it.
All of these preventative measures are worthy, but like anything else in life, they are not 100 percent guaranteed to prevent conflict. So what happens when toxic levels have already appeared, or signs are pointing in that direction?
Be Direct: Openly state the causes of the conflict, the behaviors contributing to the issue, its negative impacts, and equally important, the desired result of the intervention. Don’t Assume: While it is necessary to be direct, it is also important not to make assumptions about perceptions, motives, intentions, or beliefs. Ask questions. Listen to all sides. Do your best to be fair.
Get Face to Face: Although we have all become accustomed to electronic communication, emails, texts, and even letters are generally not a great way to resolve conflict. In addition to being impersonal, they don’t allow for conversational flow, and much nuance or intent can be lost in translation. When possible, address conflicts in person.
Stay on Topic: It’s important to focus on the issue at hand. Address specific behaviors rather than personal differences, and avoid insults and old arguments.
To borrow one more proverb from my mother: expect the best, but prepare for the worst. Great managers will put continuous work into creating and maintaining a healthy environment, setting up for long-term success, and minimizing potential conflict. They will also be ready and able to manage any conflict appropriately and with successful resolution. [CD0221]
Amy Cooley is the Customer Service Consultant for the LMC Groups. she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.