Conflict Management: Pitfalls to Avoid
By Mike Martin
Conflict is a natural and inevitable occurrence in everyday life and in the workplace. Sometimes this conflict can be harnessed to produce a better product or service but most of the time conflict, particularly in the workplace, will need to be resolved before any forward progress is achieved. There are as many ways to resolve conflict as the types of conflict that might arise. They include negotiation or mediation amongst the parties or the intervention of a manager or outside resource to settle the issue.
Regardless of what measure is used to resolve or diminish the conflict there are a number of pitfalls for managers and supervisors to avoid in conflict management. Here are just a few of them.
Not Taking Your Share of the Blame
In many cases of conflict in the workplace the manager or supervisor has contributed to the problem that let to the rise of the conflict in the first place. Sometimes it is because of a lack of clarity in direction or policy and in others it is because of a new policy directive that changes the dynamic of a team or the entire workplace. Own up to your share of the blame and it may encourage the warring parties to lay down their swords.
Conflict is often the result of a breakdown in communications between the parties. Sometimes this breakdown happens because there are no clear guidelines from management on what to do in certain situations. If that is the case you can rectify this by issuing or re-issuing clear guidelines about the issue in question. Then at least the parties in conflict will know what the ground rules are and maybe can start talking about how to resolve the issue rather than fighting over it. Helping to open a line of communication between the parties is a role that managers and supervisors should and must play.
Moving too Fast
A wise man once said “seek first to understand and then respond to be understood.” Before moving too fast to intervene in a contract you need to take the time to get the facts from all those involved. You should also take a moment pause before you intervene in a conflict. In some cases your early actions may preclude the parties from reaching an agreement amongst themselves. Then they may grow dependent on the supervisor or manager to resolve all their differences and will not learn the skills they need to resolve problems on their own.
Moving Too Slow
Conflicts usually erupt after a long period of gestation underground. They just simmer beneath the surface waiting for an opportunity to emerge and by the time they come to the forefront they erupt like a volcano. A good manager should have a handle on the pulse of their workplace and as petty resentments arise you can deal with them sooner rather than letting them fester and grow. Small issues can become major conflicts unless you deal with them sooner rather than later.
Nothing seems to rile people more than to think that they are being treated differently or not as well as other workers. Inconsistency from supervisors or managers is a recipe for conflict. It may not come out right away but a sense of injustice or unfairness will often lead good and cooperative workers to start taking a harder stance in discussions on other issues with their co-workers. This in turn will bring a strong and negative reaction from other workers and just when you need everyone to pull together on a major project a needless and harmful conflict may arise.
Reacting with Your Heart Instead of Your Head
More than anything else a manager must keep their cool when a conflict arises. There may be all adults in your workplace but every now and then you need to be the parent. There are usually enough people yelling at each other during a conflict. You don’t need to add to this background noise. If you can model good behaviour and not let your emotions boil over then maybe, just maybe, the parties in conflict may follow your lead.
Taking the Short Term Fix
The easiest thing to do to resolve a conflict is to promise something now that you hope won’t hurt you in the future. Resist the temptation. Your job is to help resolve the conflict but it is also your responsibility to think of the long term. Don’t make a short term fix unless you are absolutely confident that it won’t come back to bite you in the long run.
Mike Martin is a freelance writer and consultant specializing in workplace wellness and conflict resolution. He is the author of “Change the Things You Can” (Dealing with Difficult People). For more information about Mike please visit: