The textbook definition of conflict is “a situation where two or more people experience an incompatibility of perceptions, feelings and actions regarding interests, values and goals.” The reality behind office conflict involves a host of fears, behavior patterns and financial pressures, which can complicate a simple misunderstanding.
For several reasons, the workplace can be a hotspot for tension and conflict, including when:
•Cooperation is needed among people from different cultures (e.g. different working styles, communication patterns, expectations, attitudes, and different values).
•Implementation of exclusionary values in systems and interpersonal interactions occurs. •More resources are needed.
•Status/ranking is evident.
•People collaborate to produce a product or service but have own specialties and conflict responsibilities.
•You may not choose people you work with.
•Working conditions include long hours and/or close quarters.
•Strong allegiances to subgroups intensify/complicate conflicts (e.g. department, work functions, sect, professional, identity, management).
Conflicts that are not resolved to meet everybody’s demands can often wreak havoc. Small misunderstandings fester, tension builds up, and before you know it you’re caught in a self-perpetuating whirlpool. The good news is that conflict can be a terrific catalyst for growth and improvement in the office and at home if handled properly. It’s not the disagreement that matters as much as how we chose to respond. Most people do not respond; they react. They rely on regularly used behaviors for defending and proving that they are right. Their hot buttons are turned on the defense mode, which means that many people are ready to take a stand by remaining stuck in their position. The bottom line is that most people when confronted with a conflict just want to be in control of the process.
To get a positive outcome from an office conflict, first you must not see it as a failure. It’s better to look at it as a communication glitch. The key then is to discover the gap in perception and understanding. If you are one of the parties involved, then a good starting point is to look at yourself and your communication style. Are you communicating effectively? This also means asking questions when you don’t understand something.
A unique and essential cross-cultural method to identifying one’s conflict personality type is by using the natural elements: earth, water, fire, air. Each personality element behaves differently when faced with conflict. Earth people are stubborn and grounded to details, perfection, and loyalty, but are also strong and unmoved in crisis. Water people are driven by their deep emotions, allowing them to flow through situations. They are gentle, highly sensitive, have the gift of changing form according to which personality they deal with and, in general, hate conflict. Fire people are unpredictable creative, dynamic, and very passionate, taking great pleasure in exciting battles and attacking when others don’t agree with them. Air people are objective and rational thinkers, who attempt to understand the world and resolve disputes quickly by using laws, mathematics, philosophy, and psychology.
We recently worked with an organization, which had major problems in its training department. The problem mainly involved two people, but affected the entire department’s environment. By using the four elements to identify their personality type, we were able to distinguish between their conflict handling styles. The scenario went something like this:
Mira – overachiever, hard working and dependable – and Suzy – accommodating to everyone’s needs, also hard working, optimistic, and sensitive – had both been assigned to create a project proposal. They were working in an undersized office environment, had different working styles, clashing personalities and came from different backgrounds. From the beginning, there were antagonisms due to miscommunication.
Mira perceived Suzy as not carrying out her share of the work. She felt that she didn’t understand or have the tools to write a proper proposal and that Suzy was more committed to her personal life. Suzy saw Mira as a control freak, trying to run the show. Mira presented her part of the work as a done deal; the way it “should be” done, and not as a team effort. She perceived her as intimidating and a perfectionist, not trusting anyone but herself to get the job done. The conflict further escalated when they started gossiping about each other to their co-workers. Mira attempted to exchange chitchat about Suzy with her boss, even involving her in a manipulation trap and convincing her boss that she was a victim.
As it turns out, productive work time became thwarted and the rest of the employees in the department were affected. Something had to be done, not only for the sake of easing the tensions, but also to save the department. We scheduled a consulting session with the head of the department, Suzy, Mira and their co-workers, and conducted a comprehensive feedback evaluation. Receiving critical feedback is not always a pleasurable thing, but it is an important part of business today.
Mira and Suzy set an example for other co-workers by accepting difficult messages from each other and committing themselves to the evaluation and improvement process. The feedback helped Mira realize that her image as possessive and domineering was hindering her ability to inspire the department. Suzy, for her part, came to realize that she was perceived as a slacker and “floater” in the department, not taking her role serious enough.
We also held a mediation session in order for both parties to confront each other with the underlying issues and misperceptions that led up to the conflict. During this session, all boundaries and barriers were broken down in order for a circle of truth to be formed. Each person shared their anger, frustration and any other emotions they felt towards their relationship with each other over the past couple of months. By communicating effectively, openly and honestly, they reached a mutual understanding with one another.
It is evident that we were working with two clashing personality types. Mira, an earth bound person, was stubborn and unwilling to perceive Suzy’s entry to the department as an opportunity to learn and exchange creative ideas. However, her loyalty to her job was a supportive measure, which allowed her to remain grounded to the department. Suzy, water by nature, tried to swim her way out of the conflict, but she cared deeply for the emotional health of the department and participated willingly with the outside intervention. Her flexibility and accommodating style helped speed up the reconciliation.
We may not always have the privilege of choosing whom we work with, but the challenge in every conflicting relationship is to focus on the problem NOT the person. The problem in this case was that neither party took responsibility for their own actions, words or thoughts. They held the other person accountable for their own perceptions and failed communication.
There are several ways to take responsibility without losing face. An apology, for instance, is often one of the most difficult, but it can be done without even using the words “I’m sorry.”
Even the most difficult people can undergo positive transformation in behavior after engaging in the process of conflict transformation. It requires honesty and a commitment to growth and excellence. It demands that we re-imagine who we are and who we could be. It asks that we stretch ourselves past outgrown patterns and behaviors. We must not only be able to accept negative feedback, but actually seek it out. We must constantly be aware of our blind spots, and of areas where we can improve our understanding of our impact on others we work with.
When a conflict arises and you feel helpless, here are some general principles to ease your mind and emotions:
•Stay calm – don’t lose your temper
•Don’t fall into a trap and become defensive
•Deal with the task at hand, not on whose fault the conflict was
•State the issues as differences, not as who was right or who was wrong
•Be persistent in stating your case
•Be constructive and focus on a solution.
Tommy Weir and Christine Crumrine are from Beirut-based CrumrineWeir, the global leadership experts.