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Preventing Conflict in the Workplace: Managing Issues Before Escalation

Updated: Sep 22, 2022

When most people are asked about what conflict means to them it typically is surrounded by negativity. Due to this, many people aim to prevent conflict in various areas of their lives. So how do we do this in our workplace?

Preventing conflict in the workplace is done by foreseeing potential areas for dissonance, hiring for workplace culture, navigating personalities, reframing issues, and managing expectations and priorities.

By gaining insight into each of these and knowing what is within your circle of control, you can start to change your daily reality. This does not mean that you will never encounter conflict again, it will instead mitigate the severity and frequency of these interactions.

Foreseeing Potential Areas for Dissonance

Although it would be fantastic to have a crystal ball to show you all the issues you will encounter and how to stop them from happening, this is not our reality. I also believe that, if this were true, we would miss some amazing growth and learning opportunities that can come out while dealing with conflict. So what can someone do in order to predict what areas may cause unnecessary tension and conflict at work?

The first thing to do is to recognize the importance of nonverbal communication. If there is a disconnect between someone’s words, tone, and body language the message being delivered is incongruent, thus leaving the person on the receiving end to interpret the meaning behind the words.

A commonly referred to statistic around this is “the 7%-38%-55% Rule” representing 7% Verbal Liking + 38% Vocal Liking + 55% Facial Liking.  These statistics are linked to someone talking about their feelings and attitudes and can not be applied as a general rule for all communication. However, it can be inferred that our tone and body language do play a large role in how our words are interpreted by the other party. 

By gaining the skills and awareness to ensure a congruent message is being conveyed, we can avoid misinterpretation of words and intent, setting both parties up for success.

When engaged in active listening we not only listen to what the person is saying, we also aim to gain an understanding of the person we are speaking to. Taking the time to further comprehend the motivations and reasoning behind the perspective of the other person afford the opportunity to anticipate what may drive their future decisions.

Having this knowledge affords the opportunity to draw upon the other person’s motivations to pull them towards a successful outcome.  It can also form our decisions as to the best approach to heading off predicted issues and conflicts that may arise based upon what we know about the individual. This does not mean that the decision necessarily needs to be changed, instead, we should take measures to mitigate issues before they arise by opening dialogue strategies to deal with issues that may arise. 

This is part of a proactive intervention, where we anticipate potential issues and put in place strategies and tools to minimize the negative implications that may occur.

Some examples of these strategies could be:

  1. Creating a clear schedule around expectations and timelines

  2. Providing choices around projects and workgroups

  3. Establishing guidelines for communication

  4. Having a mentorship program that encourages feedback and learning

Hiring for Workplace Culture

Company culture is defined by how the people within an organization work and interact with one another. Depending on the industry, the company’s mission and vision, and the goals of the company the culture can vary drastically.

Shaping your culture is more than half done when you hire your team. — Jessica Herrin,  founder Stella & Dot

In an ideal scenario, every manager or head of a company would only have staff that aligns with the company culture. This is not always the case and can result in a cultural clash between employees that buy in and those that do not buy into the vision or direction of the corporation.

Differences arise in the way companies work and manage their employees. Some of these include:

  1. Working independently vs interdependently

  2. Having a stable vs flexible work environment

  3. How team and individual success is recognized or celebrated

  4. Educational and promotion opportunities for staff

  5. How the chain of command is organized

  6. The formality of communication

  7. Expected dress code

  8. How employees spend breaks or downtime at work

  9. Requirements and expectations of staff outside of work hours

If you are able to build your own team or workforce first decide upon what behavioral norms you want within your team. How do you foresee people interacting with each other when things are going well, or when there are times of discourse? Based upon these answers you are able to ask interview questions to possible applicants or team members to ensure their vision of a workplace aligns with yours.

What can you do if the company does not have a defined culture or is dealing with a clash of cultures? Without a predetermined or established culture, you have the opportunity to establish or create a culture that would best suit your industry and its goals.

If employees do not feel that there is a predominant organizational culture they are able to begin establishing what this looks like together. This can be a fantastic way to get everyone on the same page and have them work towards a similar goal. It will also allow people to direct their efforts in a way that will be recognized, rewarding and fulfilling.

If there is a clash of cultures the decision needs to be made as to if there will be compromises made on what the desired culture is or if it may be time for a restructuring of the culture so that people who do not align will fit in, or be phased out, of the new workplace. It is okay to have outliers within a company culture, they can not undermine or inhibit the efforts of the others on the team. You must determine the risk vs reward of having specific individuals that do not align with the new culture.

Keep in mind, some people are resistant to change, so if they are a valued members cutting them loose may not be the best first step. As the culture begins to change, they may decide to come on board as they see the positive effect it has on themselves and those around them. Change the people who are excited to move with you first, your cheerleaders, as you gain more support the outliers may join in so they are not left on the outs.

No matter what culture your workplace has or works towards, it is important to create a space for where humor is encouraged and mistakes can be made. At the end of the day, businesses are made up of people. We are wired to have an intrinsic desire for personal growth and to form relationships with others. How a team or workplace does this will define its culture and allow those employed to come together leading to the success of the corporation. A happy workforce is a productive and innovative workforce, happiness does not always look the same for everyone so find what it looks like for your team.

Culture guides discretionary behavior and it picks up where the employee handbook leaves off. Culture tells us how to respond to an unprecedented service request. It tells us whether to risk telling our bosses about our new ideas, and whether to surface or hide problems. Employees make hundreds of decisions on their own everyday, and culture is our guide. Culture tells us what to do when the CEO isn’t in the room, which is of course most of the time. — Frances Frei and Anne Morriss, Co-authors of Uncommon Service: How to Win by Putting Customers at the Core of Your Business

Navigating Personalities

“Do not think of knocking out another person’s brains because he differs in opinion from you. It would be as rational to knock yourself on the head because you differ from yourself ten years ago.” ― Horace Mann

The amazing thing about a diverse workplace is the myriad of different personalities that come with it. This is all well and good until something goes wrong.

By taking the time to understand what the objectives are of each person and how they can be mutually beneficial to one another (what’s in it for me) we can start to bridge the gap between seemingly opposing personalities. Ultimately, the majority of people around the world want the same thing including stability, independence, opportunities for growth, social contact and time with family.

When we invest in ways to encourage positive relations, we set coworkers up to improve their emotional and social awareness, gain new perspectives and find common motivations which in turn drive them towards a common goal. Even if individuals do not see eye to eye, having their intrinsic motivation met may help drive them to succeed.

An example of this is a team with a tight deadline, they each have a different reason for wanting to get the project done. For one member it may be that once this is done he is going to take his family on a vacation, for another it may be the opportunity for a promotion. This may cause a difference in speed of completion vs quality of the final product, by explaining their needs to one another they are able to gain an understanding of what it means for the other, bridging the gap and leading to a better and more timely end result.

If you notice that a difference in personalities is starting to become an issue in your workplace, it is worth investing in non-work-related activities. This will result in people getting to know each other beyond their regular work tasks, showing their coworkers from a different perspective.

Ways to do this can include finding out what hobbies and activities people enjoy outside of work and making time during the workday to try something new together. Another way is by arranging a work outing where employees are encouraged to come together to give back as a team by volunteering together. Both of these activities take people out of their normal surroundings and allow coworkers to start relating on a personal level with one another, seeing each other outside of their work roles and responsibilities.

Reframing Issues

When you are able to reframe an issue you take the focus away from the differences in position and create an opportunity for collaboration and a positive outcome for both parties. Reframing is seeing the problem from a different perspective. This often involves taking the people out of the problem and creating a problem that will have a solution.

Instead of “I want him to stop disrupting my workspace” the issue becomes, “How can we create an environment conducive to everyone working efficiently”.

By making the effort to look at a problem with the goal of finding the desirable outcome of both parties, we are able to change the perspective from conflict to opportunity. This is where we must look for common ground in the issue and work towards what we can do, as opposed to focusing on what has happened in the past.  “They should have…” vs “What can we do moving forward?”

Give those involved the opportunity to create a common goal to work towards together. If necessary a third party can be used to help them get unstuck from their positions and see how they, very likely, both want the same end result. How this is achieved will look different depending on those involved in the problem-solving process. having the opportunity to goal set and work towards a common goal will afford those involved the opportunity to learn about one another bridging any personal differences that may have brought them to this point.

Managing Expectations and Priorities

Very frequently issues arise and anger occurs due to unfulfilled expectations. By taking the time to manage these expectations and clearly define employees’ priorities much frustration can be avoided.

An example of this that has been represented across many industries is the expectation of promotions and financial bonuses. When an employee assumes that either of these is occurring they start planning for their future. They become attached to the outcomes that will come of this and the individual starts having an emotional connection to this future reality. When this reality does occur there are no issues; the issues begin when this reality is removed. Not only is the individual disappointed in what has occurred, they also need to reconcile the loss of their previously conceived reality. This is where negative emotions and reactions start to occur, the person is now suffering a much greater loss, the loss of their future.

Areas that people have expectations around include, but are not limited to, behaviors, work environment/conditions, monetary increases and rewards, personal growth opportunities, work tasks, project allocation, processes & procedures,  and work-life balance.  These are the shoulds;

  1. My co-workers should…

  2. My boss should…

  3. A good workplace should…

  4. Clients should…

When in doubt ask. This way if your expectations are not met you are able to ask why they didn’t come to fruition. In addition, you will be able to dig deeper into why you foresaw a specific outcome.

If you are on the receiving end of someone’s negative feeling towards their unmet expectation, seek clarification as to why they had their assumption about the way they thought something should have gone or something that should have happened.

  1. Were the assumptions based on the current reality?

  2. Are the expectations based on objective or subjective facts?

  3. Are the expectations based on past experiences?

  4. What has happened in the present situation to reinforce the expectation?

  5. What has happened in the present situation to challenge this expectation?

Another way to look at the issue is to ask whether or not it’s based upon fundamental attribution error. Simply put this means that people typically associate others’ behaviors with their character, whereas we associate our own behaviors with the situation we are in. If someone else misses a deadline it is because they are irresponsible, inconsiderate, aloof, or selfish. If we miss a deadline it is because we are overwhelmed, overworked, had to take care of a sick child, have been ill ourselves, etc. We afford ourselves excuses as to why we behave in certain ways, yet we seldom do this for others, especially those we do not relate to personally.

By focusing on and clarifying our expectations and priorities we are better able to meet the desired results. By eliminating the shoulds and affording others the same grace we grant ourselves we set ourselves up for much more happiness and success. Focus on the outcome and learnings along the way and you will find the victories along your path.

When in doubt consult a third party, mentor, HR professional, superior, trusted friend/colleague, counselor, or mediator. These people are able to help navigate conflicts and offer solutions to problems you may not see.

Do you need strategies to avoid conflict? Ultimately avoiding conflict will not make it go away. What will occur is one of two things

  1. You make the conscious decision that the issue does not matter to you. You stop giving the issue power by changing your role within it, resulting in no more conflict

  2. You bottle up the conflict and your feelings around it, resulting in resentment and further anger and frustration leading to a lack of effectiveness in your job and possible other ill effects

You need to find what works for you and your present situation. Not every method will work for every problem and sometimes the best option may be finding what you need to be at peace with the situation. We only have the ability to control our own actions, feelings, and behaviors. Though we can do our best to help persuade and influence others we are only able to control ourselves. Pick your battles wisely, and decide what deserves your time and energy and how much of each you are willing to invest. What is the cost vs reward for you?

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