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By Andrew E. Schwartz

For many of us, each day is a struggle to avoid conflict. Yet avoidance is nearly impossible, since the core characteristics, ideas, and beliefs of individuals often counterattack our own. Differences of opinion, competitive zeal, and misinterpretations, among other factors, can all generate ill feelings between co-workers within an organization. While we can't avoid conflict, we can learn how to sidestep negative confrontations by becoming familiar with the types of conflicts that most commonly arise in the workplace and by learning how to resolve them.

Conflict occurs when two or more individuals (or groups) within an organization need to solve a problem together. The problem could be minor, such as organizing a weekly cleanup crew for the coffee break area, or major, such as training staff on new and complex corporate procedures. Whatever the scenario, any situation can turn sour. The parties' interests may clash, one party's actions may insult the other party, or both parties could just have incompatible personalities.

As an executive, you should approach every conflict as an opportunity to improve employee relationships, to lessen tension in the workplace, and to eliminate longstanding problems. Treat conflict as a natural dynamic in staff relationships, since it often proves useful by forcing staff to solve problems. The parties involved in problem solving engage in brainstorming. Ideas are tossed about and evaluated until a solution is reached and effective communication has been established.

Since conflict is often the basis for estranged relationships, it's important to understand the types of conflict that invade the workplace.

Types of Conflict

Conflicts of Belief. People have different personal beliefs. Any deviation from those beliefs is bound to cause problems. This type of conflict should not be allowed to erupt in an organization.

Conflicts of Attitude. People have different values, goals, and lifestyles, which may offend or annoy others.

Conflicts Resulting from Inappropriate Management Behavior. Managers who fail to support employees and follow through on promises and tasks encourage conflicts between individuals by not taking charge.

Being an executive does not mean one can ridicule, embarrass, or hurt employees. It means helping employees reach their full professional potentials. Many supervisors often cause conflicts at work by talking down to staff or refusing to see eye-to-eye with staff.

Resolving Conflicts

With the proper knowledge of how to resolve conflicts, you can stop a potentially devastating conflict dead in its tracks.

Make a Plan of Action. The first step to conquering corporate conflict is to make a plan of action. To do this, you must be conscious of the symptoms of conflict causing scenarios. Learn to recognize the signs of escalating conflict between co-workers. Learn the difference between a brainstorming session and an ego-slashing session. Being a well-informed, highly-attuned manager is the best attribute you can possess for both your staff and your organization.

There are generally three ways a manager is informed of conflict.

First, a manager may observe discontent brewing between two parties. If this is the case, document the incidents to use as evidence when confronting the involved parties. Do not use the incidents to bully staff into behaving; only use it as reinforcement for yourself to promote cooperation and cohesion. This way, you'll remember the particular situations that contributed to the conflict and you'll be able to evaluate the degree of the conflict. For example, once you've assessed that a conflict exists between employees, say something similar to the following: "I notice that you refuse to sit at the same table as Sheila during lunch. Is there a problem I can help you with?"

A second way an executive is alerted of conflict is when one or both of the conflicting parties approach him or her with complaints about the other. Be sure to speak with both parties. There are always two sides to a conflict, and there will be two different perspectives--most likely two dramatically different renditions of the situation.

The third way a manager learns of conflict is when a third party points out the existing conflict between staff. Observe each member to make a personal assessment of the situation. The informant could be mistaken. You should be aware of any conflict involving your staff. If a third party has to point the conflict out to you, you may not be giving enough attention to your staff.

The following list are common symptoms of conflict. If these symptoms are recognized, you and staff can both be prepared to handle an outburst when confronting a stressed individual.

* The person displays no desire to

* The person gets angry for no apparent reason.

* The person's productivity is failing.

* The person's morale is slipping.

* The person frequently calls in sick.

* The person is frequently involved in accidents.

* The person cannot handle disagreements and ends up shouting, slamming doors, crying, etc.

Contemplate Confrontation. Once you have identified that conflict is present, you must decide whether the conflict is important enough to confront the parties involved. Make careful assessments of both the conflict and the conflict's impact on the individuals and the organization. The conflict could just be an intense brainstorming session which you wouldn't want to

A little conflict is healthy in a professional relationship. If both people are skilled in their jobs, molding their different opinions together can produce the best solution to a problem. You don't want to approach two people who have no problem reaching solutions even though you overhear a shrill comment or two.

Confront the Parties. Confrontation is necessary when the parties cannot reach a solution, when it takes too long to make a commitment, if insults result, or if the solution reached is insufficient. Once you deem confrontation is necessary, you may want to confront the parties separately. Confront them together once you have formed an opinion of the situation. The confrontation should be in a neutral setting and consist of a down-to-earth chat. Don't use bully tactics to try to get staff to behave. Talk the problem out and really try to see each point of view. If the parties seem to be reaching a solution, let them continue. You are only a mediator. If the conflict is in its early stage, resolution occurs now.

Determine the Cause of the Conflict. During the confrontation, the cause of the conflict must be determined. If both parties stubbornly refuse to make the story consistent, you may need to wipe the slate clean. Tell them you want them to start anew and forget the incident. They may jump at the chance!

After the confrontation, the executive should reflect on the discussion and reach an objective solution for both parties to agree upon. There will always be times when the parties won't agree on a single solution. In this case, use your own judgment. Dragging out problem solving can backfire and end up making the problem worse instead of better.

Find a Solution. Once the cause is determined, the executive dips into his resources and either reduces or eliminates the conflict. He or she should have elicited enough information to understand each staff's opinion and to define the problem in mutual terms. The major goal is to find a solution that benefits the organization.

Follow-Through on the Solution. Once a solution is implemented, the manager should make regular checks on the parties to ensure that their agreements are being kept. If the process is successful, both parties should be attempting to work the situation out. If not, confrontation must occur again to determine the underlying causes of the conflict. If the parties just cannot get along, it may be time to do some departmental

Additional Guidelines for
Responding to Conflict

Bring Hidden Conflicts Out in the Open. If you think there is an underlying conflict causing problems in a group, bring it up at an appropriate time. Bring it up at group meeting or when you have the project leader(s) alone. If you see signs of unexpressed disagreement, ask those involved what they are feeling.

Don't Accuse Group Members. Laying blame on someone, especially in front of others only makes you look bad and the person embarrassed. Try to see his or her perspective: What are his or her needs, values, assumptions, and previous

Identify and Focus on Central Issues to the Conflict. A group may be belly up in confusion until someone focuses on the real issues and the intended goals. If a meeting is getting nowhere fast, stop it in midmotion and redefine the goal. Encourage staff not to get off the track. If other issues come up, write them down and address them later.

Don't Compromise Too Quickly. By compromising too quickly, adequate exploration of the problem and its potential solutions is not administered. The ideal solution to a conflict is a creative one which gives everyone what they need most.

Understand and define exactly what you think and feel about an issue before choosing a final decision. Identify which areas you can compromise on and which areas can be phased out.

Don't expect to find a flawless solution and don't get lassoed into defending ideas for the sake of principle. Principle is a personal issue that belongs at home. On the other hand, don't offer to compromise in areas that are important to you just to be a good sport. If you agree to a decision unwillingly (or allow someone else to do so), you won't really be committed to the agreement, or you will carry around resentment that might cause trouble later.

Call Time-Out. Calling time-out is the best tool for constructive conflict. It is important for people to express themselves during group discussions, but sometimes the atmosphere gets so argumentative that people are no longer listening to each other. At this point, try calling time-out. Ask for a few minutes silence and suggest that people count to 10 before responding to an idea. If compromise seems unlikely, suggest that the discussion stop and pick up again at another time.

Set Up Special, Structured Process for Dealing with Conflict. Schedule a staff meeting, or an all day retreat to deal specifically with conflict resolution. Use a neutral facilitator to organize a program for handling the conflict.

A successful confrontation can have many positive results for the parties involved and for the organization. It can lead to a good solution to a problem, better communication between employees, increased work productivity, a raised level of commitment to decisions by both parties, and a willingness to take greater risks in the future.

As an executive, take time to determine potential conflict areas and identify methods for conflict resolution implementation should the future need arise. This small amount of time spent could be one of the best investments you'll ever make in your employees. *

Andrew E. Schwartz is president of A.E. Schwartz & Associates of Waverly, Mass., a skills-based training and consulting organization offering human resource development and managerial training programs. Carla Catalano, an intern at A.E. Schwartz & Associates, assisted in the writing of this article.

Michael Goldstein, CPA
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