Staff conflict: Three principles to nip it in the bud

July 1, 2007

When there's conflict among the troops, it can get ugly in a hurry.

It's important to recognize that conflict is necessary and can actually be a good thing. We can't always agree on everything and it's important to get disagreements out in the open to understand each other's point of view. After all, if we don't know our differences, how can we respect or resolve them?

The first step to early stage conflict resolution is recognizing that a conflict is emerging, which is likely to begin with a complaint that is left unresolved and begins to fester. Failure to act is bound to result in greater dissension, which can be destructive to relationships and the morale of the entire office. Nip it in the bud by following the three principles outlined in this article.

Once you are armed with this information, determine what options are available to fix it. For example, let's say a conflict occurs within your billing department. Kevin is criticizing Allison's work, she is becoming defensive, and they are at odds each day. You may discover that Kevin thinks he is always fixing her problems when claims are rejected. His criticism of her work is making her feel inadequate, and she is concerned about losing her job. You may discover that what Allison really needs is a little more training and Kevin has the skills to provide it. You can give Kevin the tools to better train Allison, resulting in his perceived burdens disappearing and both her confidence and skill set improving. If they agree on this, you will be developing a collaborative working arrangement and you will eliminate the conflict.

Bring them together. Let each one share their perspective of the conflict without interruption. Then tell them how you see the situation, sticking with the issue, not the people. Reveal the potential options and guide the conversation as you listen to each of them discussing the various options and giving their opinions.

Listen with all your senses to what is being said, how it is being said. Visual cues will tell you a lot. For example, if Kevin is sitting with his arms crossed and avoids looking at Allison, he is resistant, and you will need to work on getting him to open up. Validate him and his opinion and remind him the goal is a solution that works for each of them and the practice. Ask him to share his idea with Allison. Clarify what it is and then ask her opinion about his idea. The body language will change as Kevin uncrosses his arms and speaks directly to Allison. Your role is to guide the discussion as they begin to work together to solve the problem.

Your success at resolving a conflict is dependent on your ability to stick to the issues, each party respecting the other's opinion, and each party showing a willingness to compromise and reach a mutual agreement.

The art of negotiation. Mastering negotiations is both art and technical talent. Being an effective communicator is critical. Be non-threatening and cooperative by using "we" and "I," rather than "you." It's better to say, "I feel like we don't really understand each other," rather than "You don't understand me"; or "How can we fix the problem?" instead of "How are you going to fix this?"