“Myth: Most conflicts resolve themselves over time.”
Uh-huh! And pigs can fly, too! Put another way, “Unlike fine wine, conflicts that are left alone rarely improve with age.” So write Eric Harvey and Steve Ventura in When Conflict Happens . Conflicts are the bane of every organization, every team, every quartet — even dual acts (like marriages) — can break up over issues that go unresolved.
Conflicts, like brewing coffee, have a particular odor. Overpowering to some; acrid to others. Tell tale signs include wayward glances, walking away from others, or the always reliable shouting behind closed doors. When managers sense a conflict brewing they must act quickly and decisively.
Put your ear to the ground. What’s happening? Who’s saying what to whom? And most important, what’s all the fuss about? These are questions that you as a manager need to know first and before you can take further action. Get the facts by asking questions of all parties involved, and even by standers if need be. Most important, listen to what people are saying, as well as not saying. Pay attention to eye contact and body language; those will be indicators of the severity of the conflict.
Pow wow and parley. Once you know that facts, get people together to hash out the issues. Ideally, as a manager, you want to take a back seat to the negotiation process; you want your people to talk face to face and express themselves openly. That may not always be possible; so very often the manager will need to kick off the process. You can do it by framing the issues and getting people to begin to talk to one another instead of at each other.
Strive for the win-win. Workplace conflicts need not be zero sum games where winners gloat over their takings and losers shirk away in shame. As a manager, you can work to see that each party will get something from the negotiation process. The “getting” may be as grand as resources and tools, or as modest as a reinforcement of their good name. Whatever it is, do what you can to make something good happen.
Conflicts are not all bad. As authors Harvey and Ventura write, “[C]onflict challenges the status quo; it forces us to examine our thinking and behavior… to reflect on what we do and how we do it.” Nothing so thought provoking nor convention upsetting can be all bad! Let’s face it those of us in leadership positions sometimes get stuck in our ways. A good disagreement can stir things up and force us to re examine the “same old same old” mentality that leads to conformity and stagnation.
So conflict is not all bad, as long as, it is focused on issues not people. And can be resolved by people of good intention and good heart convening to find common solutions. Impossible? Sometimes, sure. But the risk of letting a conflict fester is no consolation. Managers need to belly up to the bar and take charge.