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& Cooperation In The Workplace
One topic that is of interest
to most people in the workplace is conflict; how it works, how to avoid
it, and how to deal with it when it occurs. It is indeed the rare organization
that doesn't have to face the issue of conflict, and how to harness it
so that it produces positive results rather than destruction.
In this article, we are
going to look at some important elements of conflict, how it escalates
over time, and suggest a few general strategies for dealing with it.
Two Types of Conflict
In the workplace (and
almost any setting), you are likely to find two forms of conflict. The
first is conflict about decisions, ideas, directions and actions. We will
call this "substantive conflict" since it deals with disagreements about
the substance of issues. The second form, "personalized conflict" is often
called a personality conflict. In this form, the two parties simply "don't
like each other much".
Substantive conflict can
occur on just about any issue, but its moving force is that the two parties
simply disagree about an issue. This can be a good thing or a bad thing.
Handled correctly parties in conflict can create, for themselves and those
around them, the ability to resolve an issue with something creative, something
better than either party's original position. Let's look at an example.
A branch manager and a
staff member are in conflict over work hours. The branch manager expects
all staff to work standard hours, beginning at 8:00 am so that the public
will receive service startingfirst thing in the morning. The staff member
wants to begin work at 9:00 am, because he has child careresponsibilities.
On several occasions the staff member has arrived late, which makes it
appear to the manager that the employee is being deliberately unwilling
to follow the rules.
Rather than the situation
deteriorating, the parties approach the situation, not as one that should
be won, but with an eye on solving a problem. After discussing the situation,
(and understanding each other's needs), they realize that a) almost no
customers call in the early morning b) the few that do can be handled by
other staff who like to be in at 8:00, and b) there are more customers
calling in between 4:00 and 5:00 pm. The parties agree that it makes sense
to modify work hours. The result: a happier employee and better service.
The benefits would never
have occurred if this conflict hadn't occurred, or if either party played
the situation as if it was a game to be one by one person or the other.
(Did anybody really lose in this situation?).
While substantive conflict,
if handled correctly, can be very productive, personalized conflict is
almost never a good thing. There are several reasons. First personalized
conflict is fuelled primarily by emotion (usually anger, frustration) and
perceptions about someone else's personality, character or motives. When
conflict is personalized and extreme each party acts as if the other is
suspect as a person. Second, because personalized conflict is about emotion
and not issues, problem solving almost never works, because neither party
is really interested in solving a problem...in fact, in extreme cases,
the parties go out of their ways to
create new ones, imagined
or real. Third, personalized conflicts almost always get worse over time,
if they cannot be converted to substantive conflict. That is because each
person expects problems, looks for them, finds them, and gets angrier.
Let's look at the previous
example but change the way the situation was handled.
When the branch manager
approached the staff member about the tardiness, he showed his irritation
plainly. The staff member, already feeling under the gun, felt that the
manager was being unfair, and accusatory, and became defensive. This, in
turn, resulted in the manager "laying down the law", andthat was how the
situation was left. After the discussion, the manager felt the employee
was lazy and making excuses, while the employee felt the boss was out to
Not surprisingly, the
situation got worse. Even when the staff member was a few minutes late,
for good reason, the boss jumped on him like a "ton of bricks". The employee,
angered and frustrated, started taking longer coffee breaks and was away
"sick" more frequently. The situation became increasingly polarized, with
other people being sucked in, and taking sides, privately.
Oddly enough, the initial
perceptions of both bossand employee became the truth. After a while the
boss acted as if he was out to get the employee, and the employee acted
as if he was lazy and uncaring. The original issue was all but forgotten,
as the parties developed an intense dislike of each other.
When involved in a conflict
situation, it is important that you are aware of whether you and the other
party are dealing with a substantive conflict or a personalized one. It
isn't always easy to tell them apart, and it is difficult to look honestly
at oneself. Ask yourself the following questions:
Do I dislike the other
person or get frustrated with him/her?
Do I see the other person
as untrustworthy, and undeserving of respect?
Is my emotional reaction
to the conflict appropriate to it's seriousness or lack thereof?
Do I really want to "win"?
If the answer to any of
these question is yes, you may be setting yourself up for a personalized
conflict that nobody can win in the long term.
With respect to the other
person, one good indicator of a personalized conflict situation is that
the person will try to counter your substantive point on the issue with
a series of DIFFERENT reasons why you are wrong. For example, let's look
at the following dialogue.
Manager: We can't have
you come in at 9:00 am because we need to answer the phones.
Employee: That makes sense,
but I checked and we get only one or two calls between 8:00 and 9:00 but
we get between ten and twenty calls in the later afternoon.
Manager: Well, maybe,
but if you come in later, then soon everyone else will want to...
Note that in this case,
the manager isn't really problem solving, but trying to find reasons to
refuse the request, either because he doesn't "like" the other person,
or for some other emotional reason we don't know about.
Move To Substantive Issues
Even in situations where
both you and the other party have personalized the conflict, you can work
to focus on specific issues. You have not direct control over another person,
but you have control over yourself. By moving to the issues, and staying
there, you will also encourage the other person to do so.
It isn't easy, of course.
The trick is to try to put aside your negative perceptions about the other
person, and not to dwell on them. That's an internal thing. Every time
you think to yourself "what an idiot"(or all the other negative things),
you make it that more difficult to stay focused on problem- solving, rather
than winning, or getting your own way.
Work To Prevent Personalization
It is rare that personalization
occurs just on the basis of two incompatible personalities. Usually, personalization
occurs because conflict on substantive issues is handled badly. That is,
one or both parties behaves in non-cooperative ways.
In the article on page
xx, we will help you with cooperative communication techniques that are
designed to be used to prevent the shift from substantive, positive conflict,
to destructive personalized conflict.