“If you can keep your head when all about you

Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

But make allowance for their doubting too…”

— Rudyard Kipling, If: A Father’s Advice To His Son

These famous lines extol the virtues of keeping a cool head when tempers begin to fray. The great peacemaker and architect of reconciliation, Nelson Mandela, put it even more succinctly: “A good head and a good heart are always a formidable combination.”

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that conflict sometimes arises in the workplace. Working life means having to cooperate with people we don’t know, sometimes people with whom we might have personality conflicts, and somehow to pull together to ensure that the organisation is travelling in the right direction. So when tempers rise and people take entrenched and opposed positions, what is the right course of action?

There are well-honed conflict management techniques to help your organisation to negotiate bumps in the road and return to pulling in the same direction of travel.

The first thing to ensure is that your organisation is scrupulously fair and objective when balancing sometimes irrational conflicts between personalities.

Katie Shonk is the editor of the Negotiation Briefings newsletter, a monthly source of negotiation advice for professionals published by the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School. She is also a research associate for Harvard Business School, and has sensible advice about how to manage conflict in your workplace.

“Conflict in the workplace often arises when resentment, anger, and other negative emotions are left to fester,” says Shonk. “An accidental slight can lead into a full-blown dispute if the parties involved fail to address it explicitly.”

She has three golden rules for conflict management:

  • Put in place a formal system: “Workplace conflict is often managed one dispute at a time, an approach that is inefficient and costly,” says Shonk. Harvard Law School professors Frank E. A. Sander and Robert C. Bordone urge organisations to implement a dispute system design. This is the process of “diagnosing, designing, implementing, and evaluating an effective method of resolving conflicts”. Colleagues with some experience of dispute-resolution processes – negotiation, mediation and arbitration, for instance – should be well placed to help your organisation establish a dispute-resolution process. Benefits are that this is a low-cost and less invasive approach to conflict resolution that formal external arbitration or even litigation, says Shonk. Many organisations sensibly require employees to engage with mediation before escalating responses. And it is important, she adds, to ensure that there are various pinch-points at which dissatisfied employees can engage with the process to avoid problems of, for instance, personality clashes that can arise if one person (usually in HR) is appointed gatekeeper of the process.
  • It’s all about the feedback: Workplace conflict can often arise due to issues around feedback, says Shonk. It might be that colleagues fail to give each other effective feedback – or any feedback at all. “When we fail to let people know how they can improve, our frustration grows as their mistakes mount,” says Shonk. Equally, if we give unconstructive feedback — “feedback that is vague, very negative, or too personal” — the law of unintended consequences can mean that we build destructive workplace conflict. Your organisation should commit to providing meaningful feedback that is honest and objective and, above all, useful. “People who give good feedback ask questions, stay positive, give details, and describe how the situation makes them feel,” says Harvard law School Program on Negotiation managing director Susan Hackley, and it’s a good summary of avoiding the personal and staying focused on your organisation’s values and journey. It’s important to take feedback constructively, and to beware triggers that mean we take perceived criticism personally.
  • Stick to the issues: Successful conflict resolution strategies mean focusing on the problem, not the people or personalities. “Conflict tends to promote competition and antagonism,” Hackley points out, so “you should strive to frame the situation in a positive light.” That might mean pointing out the benefits to your organisation of resolving the conflict internally and amicably compared to the downside associated with failing to do so. Remember that individuals are highly subjective and will view their position as being “right”. Only this kind of objective approach will reconcile the position and help your organisation to move forward.

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