Timing Is Key: When to Intervene in a Conflict
Learn how to address conflict in your organization to make it a net positive.
Today’s guest post is by Beth Fisher-Yoshida, Ph.D, author of New Story, New Power: A Woman’s Guide to Negotiation (CLICK HERE to get your copy).
Whether we like it or not, conflict is a part of life. It appears in our workplaces in a variety of ways, from slight disagreements to full-blown brawls. We often run away from dealing with conflict simply because it’s uncomfortable.
This discomfort comes from not having the skills to address conflict well, reliving bad memories of previous conflicts that didn’t go well, lacking the time to have a proper discussion, believing it’s not worth the effort, or hoping that if we ignore it, it will go away. Or a combination of all of the above.
Of course, the conflict might fade away with time. New priorities could take over. Or the conflict could fester and grow. This is one of the inherent risks in not addressing conflict early, and leaving it for later.
In an organizational setting, the type of intervention that’s effective in the first few months of a conflict is different from what might be effective after one year, or even after five years. It may sound strange, but as an external, impartial consultant, I’ve been called in to address conflicts that have been present for five years (and more!).
Positive versus painful interventions
In the initial phase of a conflict, there’s an opportunity to teach conflict resolution skills to the people who are directly and indirectly affected. Affected employees may be able to address the issues themselves or with the guidance of an impartial third party. By developing these skills and promoting a sense of agency in your staff, they’ll be able to address future concerns before they become problematic. Intervening early turns conflict into a net positive.
However, when conflict isn’t addressed for an extended period of time, painful issues can (and will) mount. Your employees may lose confidence in company leadership because leaders haven’t taken care of them or ensured their workplace is safe. Your staff may become emotionally or physically ill and take time off work to address their health concerns.
Whether employees take time off or remain in a conflict-riddled environment, productivity will drop, and so will your bottom line. Workers will spend time protecting themselves, not sharing information or engaging with others. In the end, everyone loses.
Conflict is an outlet
Conflict itself isn’t bad. How it’s managed makes all the difference. When conflicts surface, it’s a sign that something isn’t right, that an issue may need to be addressed. Maybe some new procedures need to be clarified. Or perhaps staff members aren’t sure how upcoming changes will affect them, and they need to be reassured that their interests are being considered.
As human beings, we often don’t express our underlying concerns constructively. Conflict is one outlet for letting other people know something isn’t sitting well with us. Conflict provides the opportunity for good discussions, brainstorming to surface great ideas, and transparency so that everyone is on the same page moving forward.
Here are three ways to be more preventive than reactive to the conflicts that arise in your organization:
Invest in skill development. Everyone can benefit from learning more about themselves and how they communicate with others. Many of us think we’re good communicators, and while we may be, there are always new and improved ways to reach different people, come together and solve complex issues, and remedy problems.
As your staff develops these skills, they’ll gain confidence so that when they need to address uncomfortable issues, they’re better prepared to do so, which will lead to better outcomes.
Lead by example. As a leader, you have more influence than anyone else in the organization. By participating in these same development activities, you’ll send a clear message: you value these skills so much, you’re devoting your time to them, too.
Actions speak louder than words when you demonstrate that you’re a strong leader who is open to being a lifelong learner.
Engage outside expertise. There are times when issues can be handled internally, utilizing the expertise of HR professionals or an organizational ombudsperson, if there is one. But at other times, there will need to be a stronger display of impartiality.
This is a good time to bring in an external consultant with the expertise you need. Staff members impacted by the conflict can confidently share their comments with this external consultant. This information can then be collected and aggregated so that no one individual is identified. In the spirit of transparency, the consultant’s reports can be shared so staff members understand what their colleagues are experiencing.
Of course, leadership will need to support this and be willing to implement the recommendations as feasible and appropriate.
Make conflict a step forward
Reframing conflict as a potentially good and informative process, when addressed well and early, is a step forward in creating a healthier and more collaborative work environment.
Beth Fisher-Yoshida, Ph.D., CCS, is a global expert and educator in negotiation and communication. She’s the program director of Columbia University’s Master of Science in Negotiation and Conflict Resolution, a negotiation consultant for the United Nations, and the CEO of the consulting agency Fisher Yoshida International. Her new book, New Story, New Power: A Woman’s Guide to Negotiation, helps women of all ages make successful negotiations a reality. Learn more at bethfisheryoshida.com.
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