Conflict in the workplace cannot be avoided — it’s the leaders job to deal with it!

Let’s face it, if you put two people together in any given situation, the likelihood that conflict may arise is extremely high. What is conflict? Conflict is disagreement, but contrary to popular belief conflict does not necessarily involve fighting. Conflict exists in any situation where facts, desires or fears pull or push participants against each other or in divergent directions.

Conflict is a normal and natural part of any workplace. When it occurs, however, there is a tendency for morale to be lowered, an increase in absenteeism and decreased productivity. It has been estimated that managers spend at least 25 percent of their time resolving workplace conflicts — causing lowered office performance.

One reason there is so much conflict in the workplace is primarily because most people simply haven’t learned how to resolve conflict before it turns into fighting, or more often than not, try to avoid conflict at all cost. This is why we have so many ‘elephants in the room’ which grow and fester. The problem with this is everyone is expending massive amounts of energy trying to avoid these ‘landmines’ and find themselves feeling they are treading on ‘eggshells’, avoiding bosses and peers, ignoring a colleagues bad behavior or poor performance, and seemingly are unable to have productive and fruitful conversations.

I have seen up-close and personal numerous situations where the absence of conflict resolution has led to disastrous outcomes and many wasted hours of employees time and energy. I was made aware of a manager who on a daily basis would appear to be involved in a negative interaction with either a peer or her manager. On one occasion, she took it upon herself to barge into a closed door meeting with her boss who was having a private (skip level) meeting with her employee. She demanded to know from her boss why he was meeting with her employee — even though there was a company wide initiative encouraging skip level meetings, in order to break down communication bottlenecks within management. Neither the manager’s boss or the employee confronted the situation, but avoided the conflict because of either the shock of what had happened, or just not wanting to appear to be a part of the problem. Have you ever found yourself in the middle of a contentious situation?

I’d like to provide three steps to moving you and your workplace, and even your home, to working through conflict. I believe this approach may get you the results that may have eluded you to date:

  • Engage both parties in an empathic way. This is, recognizing that both parties have been affected on an emotional level — they may be angry, bitter, wounded, fearful, even disgusted by the other person. If individuals are unable to express and label their emotions (how they’ve been impacted), they will not be able to move onto working through solutions. There is often a danger in these situations to expect people to “act” like professionals. Unfortunately, this approach never works, because what makes us human is our ability to feel and express a very wide range of emotions. Ultimately, when both parties acknowledge the other persons feelings, they can begin to the next step.
  • Allow both parties to explain their version of the events. Sounds incredibly simple. But it is because of misunderstanding — in the first place, that conflict has arisen. When I conduct a mediation session or coaching an individual through a challenging situation, it is without fail, that the parties have a different understanding of what has transpired. And if the conflict has risen to the level to require mediation, then there is significant misunderstanding on many levels. Often times, it can be very difficult to have individuals clearly articulate the events without creeping back into misunderstanding. The ability to listen deeply to both parties and understand how each individual has contributed to the conflict will enable you to identify potential solutions.
  • Create a psychologically safe environment for the individuals. When conflict arises, it will always have an impact on trust between people. It is staggering to me how many times this critical factor is overlooked. Again, the workplace can often feel cold and inhumane when we fail to recognize how allowing conflict to exist amongst co-workers on a daily basis is damaging, if not traumatic, to an individual’s psyche. In a recent study at Google, they found that teams with psychologically safe environments had employees who were less likely to leave, more likely to harness the power of diversity, and ultimately, were more successful. As leaders and managers, it is our job to protect people from work environments that are dysfunctional. We dare not abdicate our mandate to create environments where people can thrive, lest we expose our associates to emotional trauma, anxiety and stress.

So when the conflict inevitably arises, follow these three steps and you will minimize the negative impact of conflict at work.

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The Importance of Developing Emotional Intelligence

When you walk into a room – can you read it?  How well can you gauge the perceptions, feelings, emotions, needs of those around you? As an individual, are you self and socially aware, sensing need around you, while harnessing an empathetic approach?  These all are key qualities of Emotional Intelligence.  

Emotional Intelligence (EQ) was made popular by Daniel Goleman and is rising in both personal and professional capacities.  According to World Economic Forum Future of Jobs report, Emotional Intelligence will be one of the top 10 job skills in 2020.  So what is EQ and why does it matter?       

Emotional Intelligence is the ability to understand, express, and manage emotions, while developing and maintaining good social relationships, and thinking clearly under pressure.  Developed EQ is important and desirable because it is the foundation of teachable and team-focused attitudes.  Emotionally Intelligent individuals share seven qualities that make them effective leaders and valuable employees:   

Emotionally Intelligent employees are/have:

  1. Better able to handle pressure
  2. Increased level to understand and cooperate with others
  3. Good Listeners
  4. Are Open to Feedback
  5. More Empathetic Toward Others
  6. Set an Excellent Example for Others: Ability to not be flustered
  7. Make More Thoughtful and Thorough Decisions

In a recent workshop, a high-level participant stated she looked for these qualities in new-hires because she can teach them how to use Excel and develop a budget fairly quickly.  She could not, however, spend the time teaching new hires how to be empathetic, teachable, and team-players.  Please do not misunderstand, emotional intelligence is something to be cultivated, but cultivation takes time and self-awareness.  If an employer can hire someone with a developed EQ over an individual without one, they will be saving time and bringing an immediate and strong asset to the team.   

At the core of EQ is self-awareness.  To be emotionally intelligent we need to be able to be critically self-reflective.  In essence, we cannot avoid who we are, but we can develop who we are. Developing who we are begins with self-awareness and is comprised of 3 competencies:

  1. Emotional Self-Awareness: Able to read and understand your own emotions; recognize personal emotions impact on work performance and relationships; able to conceptualize how we impact others.
  2. Accurate Self-Assessment: Knowing strengths and limitations of the self.
  3. Self-confidence: Where you have a positive and strong sense of one’s self-worth

Practically speaking, if you find yourself saying, “this person is clueless”  you have successfully found an individual void of self-awareness.  To avoid being “that guy” ask yourself: “Are there things I don’t like about myself? Things I can change about myself?” In doing so, you have begun the journey of self-awareness.

Dealing with Diversity, Authentically.

I asked several people what immediately comes to mind when they hear the word diversity used in the context of an organization. As expected, most people do not have a favorable view of the word. The word carries significant baggage with a definite element of mistrust and hidden agendas. To  begin a trust-based conversation on diversity, it would be helpful to ask deeper questions than those typically discussed.

  1. Why is diversity important to our organization? Are we interested in deepening our empathy and understanding towards others who are different, or are we creating the potential to divide groups and create an atmosphere of confrontation?
  2. If we seek to be a diverse organization, have we consciously hired individuals who value others from different backgrounds, different perspectives, and different ethnic and cultural heritages?
  3. Do the most senior members of the leadership team demonstrate a real interest in diversity, or has it been delegated to a function that keeps the ‘compliance-police’ satisfied? In other words, do the senior leaders hide behind political-correctness or are they out-in-front, in seeking to realize the benefits of a diverse organization.
  4. If in seeking to become a diverse organization, is their true acknowledgement and acceptance that, everyone has biases and prejudices learned early in life, and people carry around feelings left over from what they learned in their families as children. True diversity will not be achieved if individuals cannot express themselves freely (respectfully) without fearing punishment or ostracism.
  5. Are the key decision makers, as well as any stakeholders, able to articulate comfortably the value of diversity? Do they understand that true diversity is not the same as meeting quotas, and can express views that demonstrate an understanding that diversity is about empathy and tolerance for different perspectives?
  6. How do we ensure that any diversity initiative does not compromise the mission and values of the organization? That is to say, how do we apply equal rigor in improving all areas to the area of diversity, knowing that most organizations take the ‘low-road,’ and end up with mere compliance?
  7. Does your leadership team and staff members reflect diversity in all its forms? If not, how likely is it that your clients, constituents, or students will come from diverse backgrounds? If the organization desires to reach a more diverse audience, the organization must have diverse voices advocating for that organization.
  8. How do we measure diversity in a qualitative way? Has/is diversity impacting decision making, or does the diversity only represent a quantitative value with little to no impact on the organization at large?
  9. How does an organization intentionally bring diverse voices to the table, when the typical voices at the table are those who by way of legacy and success typically occupy those seats? With an increasingly diverse world comes different views of success, which implies that many long held traditional views are no longer the only of most popular view. How does an organization seek out all generations, genders, socio-economic, races — including the burgeoning group of bi-racial children, and other groups to inform the conversations that shape our organizations?
  10. If we are to experience success in becoming a more diverse organization, it will require everyone to adopt a mindset of openness to learning, and a commitment to suspending judgement. Discussing diversity can become quickly charged because of the emotional learning attached to our already held views. To participate in a productive discussion requires humility, deep listening skills, and the ability to communicate with sensitivity and empathy for others deeply held views.

    Two human head silhouettes with cogs and gears

    Two human head silhouettes with cogs and gears