You can't stop conflict from happening, but you can minimize its effect on you.
Conflict in the workplace can leave you feeling frustrated and discouraged. You want to do your job, but miscommunications and contention seem to be the tone of the workday. You are left to endure co-workers who complain and managers with misperceptions.
No matter your level at your job, conflict is an inescapable part of the work environment. A recent CPP Global Human Capital Report indicated that an overwhelming 85 percent of employees at every level faced conflict to some degree, based on a joint study completed in partnership with OPP. This study also found that U.S. employees spend 2.8 hours per week dealing with conflict, which equates to approximately $359 billion in paid hours to employees during 2008.
These results do not mean that all conflict has an adverse effect on business. Some conflict might even be good for a company. In a recent post by Joe Peterson, chairman of JetBlue Airlines, he said conflict in high-trust organizations can be a good thing. Healthy conflict can encourage creativity and engagement. However, dysfunctional conflict fractures your business and reduces your productivity.
A conflict study by Psychometrics found that adverse conflict comes in a variety of forms, including ego and personality clashes, poor leadership, lack of honesty, stress, and clashing values. In the study, 3 out of 4 participants saw these conflicts result in personal insults and attacks, someone being fired, or sickness and absence. These harmful disputes create an atmosphere of distrust and introduce confusion into the workplace. An environment of trust becomes one of frustration and discouragement when conflict becomes dysfunctional. In this situation, you may feel powerless to change the antagonistic actions.
Although you cannot control the people or situation in conflict, you can incorporate three actions into your day that offer some stability when discord causes you to struggle.
1. Keep your focus on your work.
People and situations will try to pull you into the drama of the day. A co-worker may ask you to take his or her side in a dispute, or a supervisor may criticize you for the way you completed a task. When you focus on work, you create a filter that helps you stay devoted to activities that need completion. Creating a list of your tasks for the day can help you stay dedicated to work responsibilities when you are tempted to participate in the conflict.
Focus on the job enables you to create forward momentum instead of being pulled into the past. You cannot change the past, so living in the past continually gives you the feeling of powerlessness. Staying attentive to your work in the present helps you feel more in charge of your day and gives you a sense of accomplishment.
2. Describe situations factually.
Keep your comments factual instead of judgmental when you have no other option than to participate in the conflict. An objective description of the events allows you to maintain neutrality in the situation. Replace words like "wrong" and "incompetent" with situational descriptions. "Bob did not get his work done on time" is factual. "Bob is incompetent because he did not get the job done on time" is a judgment.
Your story can either draw you into the conflict or keep you neutral. Anytime participation is mandatory, describe situations in a way that maintains your role as a witness to the event without becoming the commentator. An impartial position allows you to stay out of the drama of the conflict. A common assertion for your neutrality may state that you are Switzerland when urged to participate in conflict.
3. Document communication and workflow.
A paper trail allows you to maintain more effective communication. When individuals are in conflict, a visual account of conversations and agreements helps to retain individual accountability. Documentation about discussions and workflow reduces misunderstandings and gives you a factual reference to communications when there are discrepancies between your recollection of conversations and other perceptions.
For example, if leaders in your company question an action that you took, documentation offers you a record that supports the choices you made and the activities you completed. Also, when you finalize a decision with a co-worker about who will complete a specific task for a project, documentation of these agreements reinforces your actions should there be a dissimilar perspective of who was responsible for the work. Instead of debating who is wrong or right, you can support your efforts with documentation.
The thing to remember when you are faced with these conflicts is that you can't control other people, but you can control yourself. Use these three actions as tools to help you maintain your sense of stability when the organization introduces conflict in a way that minimizes employee success.