A business with no conflict is a business with no growth. If you hire a team of dynamic, competent, creative individuals, it's a sure bet those individuals will unavoidably disagree at some point. Sometimes they'll even disagree with you.
Although the issue of interpersonal conflict and how to deal with it can fill volumes, when faced with two of the most common workplace responses to interpersonal conflict, there are some surprisingly simple solutions you can try to help you work through these reactions.
Problem No. 1: Anger
The thing about anger is, although it may be a reasonable response to something that happens at the office, it's almost never a useful response. Becoming angry at what an employee says or does rarely helps the situation, but that doesn't mean you still won't get angry. Worse, it's easy for you to end up in an "anger spiral" where you get mad at your staff member, then mad at yourself for getting angry in the first place.
Solution: Find the fear. In general, anger is really fear wearing a disguise. You might get angry with one of your employees because that person did or said something that threatened something important to you. If you can identify and eliminate that fear, you'll find your anger fades away with it.
Technique to implement: Circles of exposure. This technique comes from martial arts training and involves drawing imaginary concentric circles around yourself. The center circle indicates how close somebody must be to grab you, with the most distant circle indicating where somebody could hurt you by shooting at you. Intermediate circles show where people must stand to hit you with a punch, a kick and weapons of various lengths.
To implement this solution, mentally draw circles of circumstances where the person you're angry with could actually do you professional harm. In nearly all cases, you'll find the incident that's made you angry isn't inside any of those circles. It's on the outside—annoying, but harmless.
Problem No. 2: Poor Behavior
This situation isn't always in and of itself a conflict, but it sometimes involves initiating a conflict in order to make it stop. It comes up when an employee is doing something (or failing to do something) that directly affects how well the office works. Some examples include:
- Showing up late to work
- Making comments that make their co-workers uncomfortable
- Complaining frequently about things nobody can fix
- Not pulling their weight or completing their work in team assignments
Solution: Escalating consequences. Most professional businesses have a version of this solution written into their employee manuals. This solution clearly defines a course of correction for specific infractions, like sexual harassment, low performance metrics or tardiness. The trouble is, many behaviors that need addressing aren't listed in that part of the manual, so you need to find a way to motivate change without making a disciplinary threat.
Technique to implement: When you "X," we "Y." Map out in your mind (or on paper) the specific consequences of your employees' actions. For instance, "When you make jokes about your wife, it really upsets John and Kerry," or "When you blew off that assignment last week, I had to work late for three nights so we wouldn't miss our deadline." Once you're ready, have the conversation with employee. For most people, simply becoming aware that they're doing harm will motivate change. For the rest, having that talk can be the first step in creating a more formal correction plan.
The two techniques described above aren't only applicable to these two problems. Identifying fears through active listening will also help you solve an anger-management issue coming from somebody besides you. And "When you 'X,' we 'Y' " statements work for opening potentially touchy conversations in a positive, solution-oriented mindset.
These aren't the only kinds of office conflicts or even the only ways to handle these particular problems. As experienced business owners, what other advice can you offer the community?
Jason Brick has contributed more than 2,000 blog and magazine articles to local, regional and national publications and speaks regularly at writing and business conferences. You can find out more about Jason at www.brickcommajason.com.
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