A male and female engineer shared an office. One day the female engineer entered through the closed office door to find the male engineer half undressed, changing into clothes for a big date. He yelled at her not to walk through closed doors without knocking. She shouted back that he should change in the men’s room and that this was her office, too. The conflict then prompted weeks of gossip, resentment, and further conflict (some of it gender-based), involving the entire office and interfering with everyone’s productivity. How was the issue resolved?
The female engineer was given a new roommate, another female engineer. As the son of the company’s vice president, the male engineer was promoted and given a large, private office of his own. Both decisions led to gossip, resentment, and further conflict; the newly promoted engineer lost respect; and company morale plummeted. This was not the path to conflict resolution.
Roots of Conflict
Conflict is usually rooted in a disparity between the individuals involved. In professional and personal life that disparity may be based on power, wealth, role, work habits, personality, gender, and race, among others. If that disparity is seen instead as diversity, it has the potential to improve problem solving, innovation, and productivity. However, those positive results require a culture that supports respectful conflict and respectful resolution—clearly both elements were lacking in the case of the two engineers.
Among other statistics on workplace conflict, research shows that it costs billions of dollars and millions of lost working days. Yet nearly 60% of employees in the U.S. never receive guidance or training in conflict resolution.
Recognizing the Signs of Conflict
Most signs of conflict are easy to detect: certainly open argument is one of them. Others include gossip, high turnover, direct complaints, shunning, or sabotage. Ignoring signs or simply demanding that the uncomfortable behaviors stop are both quick ways to ensure that the conflict will escalate and spread.
Whether the conflict involves leader and employee, two or more employees, or vendors, customers, and consultants, it probably involves disagreements over:
- Tasks (whether the task is important, who is assigned, how the task is handled)
- Relationships (feeling privileged, feeling ignored, constantly interrupting, playing loud music)
- Experience (generational, educational, or life lessons)
- Values (fair vs. unfair decisions, types of selling techniques, types of customers targeted)
- Creativity (whose idea is better, what are the selection criteria, should an idea be implemented).
If conflict is recurring and always seems to involve the same party, that person may be the source of conflict and the easiest course is often chosen: removing the guilty person. However, repeated conflict may be a sign of temporary and treatable stress; or a reaction to repeated discrimination and a hostile work environment; or the first sign of professional burnout that will eventually affect the entire office.
Most authorities on conflict resolution agree that leaders should:
- Develop guidelines. Acceptable behaviors and the process of conflict resolution should have been established early in the team’s formation; the entire team—not just the individuals in conflict—should be aware and reminded of those guidelines.
- Communicate with both parties. A leader should give both sides a chance to communicate their grievance respectfully—miscommunication or inadequate information is the source of many conflicts. Avoidance and blaming are ineffective responses; the ability to listen is a strength.
- Calm emotion. A leader should not return anger with anger, frustration with frustration, but should concentrate on rooting out cause and effect.
- Find a mutual basis for agreement. The agreement in the case mentioned at the start of this article could have begun with an acknowledgment that everyone needs privacy at some time—for example, in making a personal phone call.
- Allow the parties to find their resolution. The leader’s role is to facilitate the search for a win/win. This objective may be facilitated with problem analysis, by addressing the obstacles to change, or using other techniques that the parties may be too emotionally involved to employ without outside, nonjudgmental, objective help.
- Ask for mutual apologies. Unless the parties make some gesture of reconciliation, the conflict is likely to simmer underground and rise up again.