Workplace Conflict: Getting Past ‘He Said, She Said’

In an office, occasional conflict is inevitable. How you as an owner or manager handle it will define the atmosphere post-resolution.

September 5, 2014

Conflict can have many causes—differences about roles and responsibilities, varying work styles, even generational differences. “These days, you may have four generations working together,” says Roberta Peirick, an organizational development consultant from Saint Louis. “And they may each have a different style of communication. For example, a more senior person (in age) might expect work to happen A, B, C, D—very methodically—where a younger person is working maybe C, B, A, D.”  Both may be working professionally but may not understand or approve of each other’s approach.

Whatever the root of the problem, “it’s the manager’s responsibility (to diffuse) the situation—and quickly,” Peirick says.

Here are a few methods broker-owners or managers can use to help resolve the inevitable office conflict.

Acknowledge Style Differences

Peirick recommends preparing before a problem even arises. To do that, she uses the Thomas–Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument, or TKI, a survey tool that managers can use to evaluate workers’ conflict styles (cost: $40 per person with volume discounts). People are assessed as having one of five methods of handling conflicts:

  • Competing (assertive, uncooperative)
  • Avoiding (unassertive, uncooperative)
  • Accommodating (unassertive, cooperative)
  • Collaborating (assertive, cooperative)
  • Compromising (intermediate assertiveness and cooperativeness)

“When there’s a conflict, people go to their corners,” Peirick says. “If you know where everybody’s going, you can be prepared.”

Have an Established Path

It’s easier to work out a conflict if everyone has a blueprint of how to do it, Peirick says. She recommends creating a flow chart with step-by-step directions.

For example, a conflict between two agents might go first to a branch manager and then to the broker-owner. Or your company may have a team in place to help mediate and resolve disputes. Whatever your approach, everyone should know the proper path and come prepared with information that will help speed the resolution.

“A lot of times, there’s a kind of conflict-management etiquette within a company, and managers can assume everybody knows it,” Peirick says. “It’s harder to negotiate when things are implicit. It’s better to have it written down. Then nobody can say, ‘I didn’t know that.’ ”

Know the Goal

When negotiating a conflict, it’s important for all parties to agree on the end point and then ask, “Does the conflict relate to what you’re trying to accomplish, or is it just a personality clash?”

If it’s personality, “move the parties toward thinking about the end point and away from egos,” advises Peirick. “Make the boundaries of the argument very clear. Focus on roles and responsibilities. As a manager, you have to keep coming back to that.”

While some conflict is unavoidable, a lot of unresolved conflict is a danger sign.

“Ask yourself, am I contributing to this?” Peirick says. “How we assume we are acting is not always how people perceive us.”

High-performing offices handle conflict better than low-performing offices, Peirick says. “They recognize that conflict is a given. Trust is high, and they’re able to really listen to others and say, ‘It’s not about me. It’s about the objective.’”



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