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Resolving Conflict In The Workplace

Use this framework to help making resolving conflict in the workplace easier, and get better long-term results 

Resolving conflict in the workplace is a drain on your time and stress levels. None of us likes dealing with conflict. But you are never going to stop having to deal with it. 

Furthermore, conflict is one of the most non-value-adding tasks in any company. It absorbs a huge amount of time and elevates stress and tension. There is also a resultant downturn in performance as people withdraw and withhold their peak capability.

So, being masterful at resolving conflict in the workplace fast (or better yet, putting systems in place to avoid it altogether - but that's another article!) is a skillset and capability every leader needs to fine-tune.


Resolving conflict is like any process


You need to understand and make plans around:


  • What you want to achieve
  • Why it is important
  • How you are going to do it

In this article, we are predominantly focused on the What and Why of resolving conflict in the workplace. 

But, it is crucial to understand that the work you do in creating the What and Why sets up the success of the How. If you want more details on the How, then access the Successful Feedback training.

What, Why, How of resolving conflict

Whether it is a conflict you're involved in or one you are trying to mediate you can make use of the framework explained below to help you get a better result


The big mistake everyone makes when resolving conflict in the workplace ...

They only deal with the issue that is creating the conflict or problem!

Attend any workshop, read any book on resolving conflict in the workplace, and you'll get advice like: 

State clearly what the issue is and why that's a problem. And I teach that too!

But, that isn't enough.

Conflict by its very nature means, ten-to-one, things have festered for a bit. There is most likely much ill will and a severe lack of trust. 

So if you wade into any under-performance or conflict situation, just trying to fix the issue at hand, you are only going to partially fix the problem.


Let's illustrate with an example. 

be a learner

STOP and Do this activity before you read on


Imagine you have a team member (Sandy) who regularly hands in her work assignments late.


You've addressed this issue with her a few times. She has agreed that:

  • she will be on time in the future, and 
  • would let you know well in advance if there was an issue about meeting a deadline

But today she's missed another deadline, and she didn't let you know she was going to miss it.


Which has meant you've had to race around doing her work, so you can get a report to a client on time. You're somewhat annoyed at her flippant attitude. And YET AGAIN, she's put you in this situation (arrggghh)!


Write down 2-3 bullet points about:

  • what outcome you want to achieve in this conversation, and
  •  what you would talk about

Going broader than just the issue is key to resolving conflict in the workplace 


Many people in answering the scenario above might do any of the following:

  • Try to get a commitment (again) to being on time and letting you know, if there was a problem.
  • Some people might talk about the pattern of behavior, (rather than this one-off instance), and how it is causing problems
  • Others might talk about the breakdown in trust, because of her unkept promises
  •  Some people might even say it is time to give her a formal warning

Most outcomes they have around this conversation will be about her getting her work in on time, and the breakdown of trust. While that is exactly what you should do, it is not sufficient.

Because generally when we step into these types of conversations our emotions are up. And our personal weaknesses and flaws get in the way of achieving an excellent outcome.

Because the very best resolvers of conflict (the masters) take a much broader approach to issues. And, when you get good at applying this framework, it will turn you from being a good resolver of conflict to a masterful influencer!

Three key questions you must ask and answer before resolving conflict in the workplace

There are three questions that, when they become second nature, enable you to keep conversations and relationships healthy and positive, (even when emotions take over), and get things done effectively and efficiently:

  • What do I want for the TASK (short and long-term)?
  • What do I want for this RELATIONSHIP?
  • How do I want to GROW in this situation?
Resolving Conflict in the workplace - 3 key goals

Answering these questions, (either before a challenging conversation or when a challenging conversation hits you unexpectedly), enables you to remain focused on what is important to you. Rather than getting caught up in the games of:

  • winning
  • protecting turf
  • saving face
  • seeking revenge
  • defending and protecting yourself

Let's take a look at how this might play out:

I'm taking 2 weeks paid family leave!

I recall a team member who rang in saying he had to have two weeks paid family leave because his wife was overseas at her father’s funeral. Their family values were such that they wouldn’t place their children in childcare EVER. Therefore, he wouldn't be at work for the next two weeks. (This was delivered to us as an ultimatum. And while, we did have a generous family leave policy, this was stretching the boundaries of fairness).  


Before meeting with him, his Leader spent time planning what he wanted to achieve in the conversation with the team member.  (And luckily, because this guy was such a brilliant leader/coach, I got to sit next to him as he did his planning).


He decided what he wanted from this situation was to:

  • minimize the amount of time the team member was away from work (TASK - short-term)
  • see if the team member could provide value-adding work to the team while taking care of his family situation (TASK - short-term)
  • make sure that the team's capacity to cover his role wasn't stretched for an extended period due to his absence (TASK - short-term)
  • inspire the team member to feel committed to his team and the organization – both now and in the long-term (TASK - long-term)
  • help the team member understand his importance and impact on the team and the business (TASK - long-term)
  • ensure that both he and the team member were comfortable with any decisions made (RELATIONSHIP)
  • assure the team member knows that his needs are being considered (RELATIONSHIP)
  • make certain the team member knew how much he was valued and respected (RELATIONSHIP)
  • understand we are both going to be feeling vulnerable, and take account of that (RELATIONSHIP/PERSONAL GROWTH)
  • maintain a position of curiosity rather than condemnation (PERSONAL GROWTH)
  •  keep his hot temper under control and listen carefully to the team member (PERSONAL GROWTH)

The very, very abridged version of what this great Leader-Coach said to the team member was, "You know, it is so important to us that you are here at work. Because I can't hire a casual to do the work that you do. You have a set of expertise that we can't easily replace. Is there some way that you could come in for 3-4 hours per day, to cover the busiest time?"


The team member immediately said, “I hadn't thought of it that way, and I hadn't thought of coming in shorter hours.”


Now, the difference in presenting it this way ... "Your expertise we can't replace" unquestionably got this team member on board. He was more than willing to find options that enabled him to support his team and the company. 


In fact, he worked it out so that he could come to work during the 3-4 critical hours for the team each day. And, he arranged to take work home with him to do during the other hours (paperwork/training manual documentation etc. that the team wanted to have done, but never had time to get to).


How an average influencer would have handled this situation


How much different do you think the scenario would have played out if the Leader-Coach had said, “We need you here. Organize your family situation so you can come to work. You can have three days, off, then either take annual leave or take unpaid leave.


Certainly, according to legislated requirements, the leader would have been justified in saying something like this. 


But, would it have resulted in engagement and commitment by the team member?


The key here was that this leader was focused on both the immediate situation and the long-term desire to have a committed and engaged team member. Not someone who felt he had to choose between his work and his family.


Here's how Shelley wanted to react


Now, this scenario happened some 20+ years ago, when I was still learning how to be a good leader. But it has always stuck in my mind because it was such a steep learning curve for me.


As the People & Culture Leader (yes, that was my title back in the 90's how ahead of the times we were!), when I first heard about this situation, (of the team member wanting to take 2 weeks off work and stay at home with his kids), my reaction was, "He needs to get his lazy butt back to work." 


Because all I was focused on was the immediate issue ... we can't do without him for 2 weeks and he needs to get back to work asap! I was ready to go in all guns blazing, 'telling him' in no uncertain terms that his 'ultimatum' was unacceptable. Had I been left to solve this 'problem,' I would have ended up with both the team member and me being at loggerheads for years to come.


Luckily, I got to sit beside this wonderful leader for many years and learn from him. And this scenario was just one of many where I discovered how to influence, rather than bulldoze. How to inspire and engage, rather than inflict control. How to get long-term high-performance and high-commitment, rather than short-term results.

Control your instinctive reaction by being big-picture focused

Knowing what you want  (short and long-term for the task, relationship and personal growth) will help you control your instinctive reaction. Which is to possibly shut this person down and control them in some way.

Make use of the free Successful Feedback Planning Form. It helps you plan out the three outcomes you want to achieve, and it helps you get out of your own way so that you don't sabotage the conversation. 

Using the 4Bs of high-performance framework power-punches your performance when resolving conflict in the workplace


No matter what circumstance you are facing, you must have at the forefront of your mind the 4Bs of high-performance. This framework will ensure that you are looking through the lens of total performance and punches your influencing ability and leadership performance to a new level.

In the scenario above the leader had focused upon and wanted to achieve the following: (even though at the time I hadn't created the 4Bs framework, now looking back this is exactly what he was doing)

Inspiring the team member to believe in the company, and that what he does matters and has an impact

Ensuring that the team member feels that he belongs in this workplace.  He is safe and respected. That this is the sort of place where he can thrive and wants to contribute

Being clear about the behaviors that are required to ensure both the success of the organization and the individual.

And finally, ensuring that the bottom-line is covered. The productivity levels are maintained for the business. The team member not only keeps his job, but he is value-adding while not being physically at work.  And, that minimal time is spent in non-value-adding conflict. And maximum time is spent on improving how we work together and create a difference.

Fixing the problem will be top of mind, but it is only one-third of the issue

Whether it is an under-performance issue, a behavioral problem, or a personality conflict ... having a challenging conversation with someone means that you want something to be different after the conversation.

In your planning, you must set goals around WWW (Who, Does What, By When) after the conversation is ended. Remember though, just because you've set goals in your planning, doesn't mean that is where you end up.

Be flexible throughout the conversation to ensure that both you and the other person walk away feeling that you have been treated fairly, and have been heard.

However, changes in behavior/task goals are only one piece in the puzzle. If you stop there, in your planning, you are missing out on creating some magic in the relationship and having a long-term impact.


Relationship and personal growth are two key components to resolving conflict in the workplace


You see most of the times we are so zeroed in on getting the issue fixed, so the person's behaviour doesn't negatively impact on immediate performance, we don't stop to think through our bigger picture.

Every conversation is an opportunity to build or destroy a relationship


Anything that gets done anywhere - (whether at work or in your personal life) - is usually done with the co-operation of others. 

You must think about, and plan deliberately your goals for the relationship between you and the other person whenever you enter a high-stakes conversation. This is the key difference between a masterful influencer and everyone else who just rush in and try to fix problems!

You and I both know

  • when people don't like or trust you
  • when they don't think you care about them and their needs/goals

then they aren't going to go out of their way to help you achieve your goals. They aren't going to put in much effort to make your life any easier. 


Future-pace the quality of your relationship during and after the discussion

So, anytime you are hoping to resolve a conflict, or address a performance issue, make sure that one of your goals is to get or keep the relationship on a good level. If the relationship has been fractured for some time you are going to have to work doubly hard at not worsening the relationship. And at best case, you should be planning on building a bridge for you to get to a healthier connection.


Every conversation is an opportunity for you to grow and become a more empowering leader
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We all have flaws. 


Mine is my hot-temper and bulldozing ways. So on the fight or flee scale, my instinct is at the fight end of the spectrum.

So, before any high-stakes conversation, I need to take a moment and remind myself that I don't want to be the type of leader that wears size 9 hobnail boots! Instead, I remind myself that I am an empowering leader and masterful influencer, when I listen, get curious and work for a mutual agreement. 


Who are you showing up as?

What about you? What part of you gets in the way of your success?

Set deliberate goals before you start any high-stakes conversation to get better at what you're not good at.

Ask yourself what are the:

  • qualities
  • characteristics
  • mindsets
  • thought patterns
  • behaviors

that, in the past, may have sabotaged your success? Now think about what you can do differently so they don't derail the conversation and the relationship.  

You can use this framework even when you aren't in a conflict situation

Interviewing for a new job


One of my clients was recently interviewing for a new job. She is much more down the  reserved/flee end of the scale.


She had a belief that to be seen as a leader in the fast-moving consumer goods industry (FMCG), she needed to be a more dominating type leader. Which doesn't sit right with her natural style.


Through our coaching, she quickly came to understand that all types of leaders are needed in all types of organizations and industries! It was about valuing the strengths she brought to the team and minimizing the impact of her weaknesses. (That leader I spoke about before who was the best leader I've ever worked with ... his natural style was more down the reserved/flee end of the scale - and he is now running an entire global division in an FMCG company)


So her personal growth goals during the interview were:

  1. 1
    Speak with confidence and poise
  2. 2
    Boldly describe how her leadership style would be an asset in this FMCG environment
  3. 3
    Ask strong questions to ensure this is the right company for her
  4. 4
    Be okay to ask clearly and deliberately for what she wants

After the interview, she reported how well the interview had gone. Because she had set her personal growth intent she was really well equipped to answer the question "Are you a leader?"  It also, helped that we'd been working her understanding and acceptance of how powerful her 'quieter' leadership style can be. 

ready-to-be-coached


Start with Relationship and Personal Growth, then move to Issue


It might seem logical to start first by planning and goal-setting around the issue to hand, and what changes in behavior/performance you want out of the conversation.

However, to be an exceptionally powerful influencer, it is better to start with your relationship and personal growth goals first!

Because when you start to think about the Relationship - your goals for the outcome of the conversation, might shift.

Instead of going in under the influence of emotion, and maybe gunning for short-term, quick-fix results, you will now have a clearer, broader picture of what you are truly trying to achieve in this conversation. You'll start to think about the short-term fix you are after, and the long-term behaviors you need to inspire for high-performance and ongoing success.

This is what Masterful Influencers

and High-Performance Leaders do

Achieve the short-term fix they are after, and be focused on building Believing, Belonging, Behaving and Bottom-line.


Masterful Influencers laser focus on doing what they can to inspire the long-term behaviors and commitment they need for high-performance and ongoing success

You'll tamper down any angst, anguish, postering, defensiveness and vulnerability that may be roiling around inside you. 

You'll start to think about the long-range and how best to influence that. Then you will become better at achieving outcomes that everyone will be okay with. As in the 'I'm taking 2 weeks paid family leave' example above. That leader got to such a great outcome with the team member, because he started by aligning with his relationship and personal growth goals first, then shifting his attention to the task at hand goals. 


Apply this regularly and it will become second nature


The more you adopt this framework and use it in your day-to-day, you'll be able to rapidly set your task, relationship and personal growth goals in a few seconds, no matter what situation is unfolding in front of you. 

But initially, like any new skills, you may be a bit clumsy and you'll need some guidance. 

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