Though workplace conflict is accepted as being normal and natural and in most of our learning and development programs we do discuss about conflict, I wonder if organizations have SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures) for managing and resolving conflict. It would be interesting to learn if your organization has adopted something on these lines. When the reasons for conflict have generally been categorized the resolution techniques can certainly be standardized as well.
We talk about teamwork, leadership, change, alignment with organizational goals but still avoid addressing head-on the issue of conflict. This certainly is a dichotomy. The ostrich mentality is widely prevalent – as an ostrich hides its head in the sand waiting for an approaching storm to pass over so also many a time workplace conflict is ignored. But this workplace storm doesn’t pass over, it explodes! It affects not only the directly participating individuals but takes into its fold many more – the team, organization and in many cases vendors, associates and customers as well. Ignoring or blaming never solves conflicts. They need to be acknowledged, agreed to be communicated about, the impact be discussed and for resolution the participants need to go through the SOPs. Conflicts should never be let to fester.
As a starting point we need to understand that conflict also has positives as does also its management and resolution. Resolving conflicts breeds trust and then powerful relationships. Different points of views and ideas can give rise to conflict but its discussion and acceptance can lead to innovation and growth.
To quote Steve Jobs, “Some companies (people) are prisoners to their point of view”.
Perhaps the most difficult part of conflict resolution is making the first move and fear of rejection. If as part of the SOP it is decided that conflicts have to be necessarily discussed periodically, then this first hurdle can be easily overcome. As they say, a good beginning is half the battle won. Not that this should be thought of as a battle. But yes, the clichéd win-win should happen. Once people realize that this is the best non-zero sum game, collaboration can become so much easier. More so, if people don’t stick to their positions adamantly but instead concentrate on interests. Interests can be different for different people and within the framework, both interests can be taken care of leading to a win for both parties. No wonder, Stephen Covey postulates Win-Win an important fourth habit in his famous ‘7 Habits’. Covey says that Win/Win is based on the paradigm that there is plenty for everybody, that one person’s success is not achieved at the expense or exclusion of the success of others. Win/Win is a belief in the Third Alternative. It’s not your way or my way; it’s a better way, a higher way.
However, unfortunately, for many of us, ego satisfaction happens only with, “my way or the highway”. Ego is what we always need to keep trying to triumph over. As has been very well said, “At the feast of Ego, everyone leaves hungry.”
Discussion on conflicts doesn’t necessarily mean arguments as long as some ground rules are laid. Not getting personal, keeping focused on the issue under discussion, mutual respect.
As Bernard Meltzer famously said, “If you have learned how to disagree without being disagreeable, then you have discovered the secret of getting along -- whether it be business, family relations, or life itself.” Closer home, I have heard Narayan Murthy echo this thought often.
Stephen Covey says, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Patience and good listening skills are essential for this. It is perhaps no coincidence that an anagram for LISTEN is SILENT. How can you listen empathically without being silent? If one lets go of basic assumptions and prejudices, doesn’t pre-judge, and has a positive visual outcome of the proposed solution, conflict resolution becomes all the more easier.
I also like the acronym somebody coined out of CALM – Clarify the issue (root cause analysis), Address the problem, Listen to the other side, Manage your way to resolution.
Whatever type of conflict it may be, affective or cognitive and whatever the other reasons – resources, role clarification, responsibilities, interests, personal goals, performance anxiety, pressures of change, power struggle, difference in ideas; conflict resolution can be achieved as long as everyone affected is ready to work towards a rational and workable solution. Generally an issue seems more complex than it actually is and the players seem more aggressive and stubborn than they actually are.
At the end of it all, I like to stay with Thomas Crum’s thoughts - In a conflict, being willing to change allows you to move from a point of view to a viewing point – a higher, more expansive place, from which you can see both sides.