One Thing That Could Matter Most in Resolving Conflicts at Work
by: Lynda McNutt Foster
If you think that you aren’t supposed to experience conflict at work or there is a way to completely avoid it, you’re probably not going to get very good at resolving it when it arises. Good people, with great intentions can have misunderstandings, let one another down, breach trust at some level, or just get pretty annoyed at the other person just because they spend so much time together at work. It’s common to look at another person and think that what they did was just “weird” and can I just say it because so many people think it, “stupid”.
To get better at being a leader you’ll need to practice navigating conflicts and many of those conflicts come from people not seeing the other person’s perspective or point of view. Conflicts become worse when people think that their point of view is the “right” one and that the other person “should” have done something different than they did.
A recent Fast Company article entitled, All Your CoWorkers Behaviors, Explained stood out to me. Two out of three of the ways to explain “weird” behavior are things we talk about in our training frequently which are traits (different behavioral types as described in DISC assessments) and goals (which align with the Motivators or Driving Forces assessments). It can help to resolve a conflict, or even avoid one, by understanding which behavioral types you are dealing with and what is going to motivate them to reach their goals. If you know what someone’s goals are it helps in understanding what they are focused on.
The situation matters.
The third explanation of why a coworker may behave a certain way was one that comes up during one-on-one coaching sessions. It is about discovering the situation or context of the behavior you are observing. The situation someone finds themselves is can have a significant effect on what decisions they make. It takes time to listen for the facts of a situation. Some people aren’t that good at explaining their situation or don’t have a great memory to communicate the facts well. Others give TOO many facts and data about their situation which requires patience and concentration to decipher.
It can be quite the slippery slope of a time trap to even ask about the details of a situation, so you want to make sure they matter. They usually don’t if the conflict is of a minor nature or the problem seems based in drama. It’s a good rule of thumb to dig into the situation if you see a consistent pattern or patterns of behavior occurring. There could be a very good reason why one of the people is acting the way that they are.
For instance, people can get pretty upset when they perceive that one of their teammates isn’t pulling their weight. They may feel that they have to make up for the lack of work by the other team member and they can perceive that as unfair. Whether it is or it isn’t you are probably going to be navigating a conflict, whether someone has voiced it or not. Perhaps there isn’t clarity around what the roles, responsibilities, and expectations are for each member of the team. Maybe, the expectations of the team member that is upset are not reasonable for the project or circumstance. It could also be true that the team member that is being seen as not pulling their weight is dealing with a situation that others are not aware of and that has not been communicated, or perhaps cannot be.
I coached a leader once, let’s call him “Joe”, that took over a department in which 3 of the 5 members he inherited in his new position were unable to do their job. One was very ill and had to frequently call out sick, another was dealing with an emotional issue that caused them to be withdrawn and extremely limited in their ability to complete tasks. Still the other one was simply someone that was close to retirement and believed they could “coast” through the last few years of their employment with the organization.
Because the issues were all personnel related the Joe could not discuss the situation of each of the team members with the ones who were now having to pull twice the workload. The team was frustrated, the leader was anxious and overwhelmed, and it was difficult for him to manage without being able to explain the situation he was in to other divisions that needed their projects done by him and his team.
There was an assumption by other leaders in the organization that Joe was mismanaging the department. There was whispers that Joe wasn’t holding his team accountable. Joe was struggling to create relationships and build influence with his leadership peers because he felt trust was being violated when deadlines were not met.
Rather than assuming that Joe may have circumstances or a situation he was dealing with that was beyond his control and reaching out to him to discuss his intentions, goals, and find ways to solve the situation, the Joe’s peers simply talked negatively behind his back and complained about his team’s lack of productivity.
In this situation, the new leader could not discuss his situation to his peers. What if he could have, though? Wouldn’t it have made a big difference? Wouldn’t his leadership peers have understood and allowed for more time to get the projects done or create work-arounds while Joe’s department was working through their personnel issues?
Discover the context.
So many times assumptions are made which are not correct. I don’t mean not factually correct by a little. I mean so many assumptions I hear voiced about someone’s behaviors and “why” they did “this or that” are dead wrong. Not even in the ballpark of being near correct. Understanding someone’s situation, not making excuses for, but taking the time to recognize that you may not know the whole story, can be very helpful in resolving conflicts. You may need to put into context the behaviors that are occurring in order to be effective at getting things unstuck.
The next time you’re resolving a conflict with someone else or between two team members, stop a moment and become curious about the situation each person is in and what circumstances may be leading to the behavior you are observing. It’s easy to come to quick conclusions, based on assumptions, when you don’t make the time to stop and listen.
Here is an additional resource to help increase your emotional intelligence: