When I get a call about workplace conflict, I often find that:
- The situation has been brewing for a long time.
- There have been repeated violations of social norms.
- The person monitoring the situation tends to want to avoid conflict.
- A quick fix is most desired.
It is unlikely that there is a quick fix available in this scenario.
The quickest fix might be to coach the person monitoring the situation.
Teaching people how to handle conflict respectfully and functionally is a process. Having people learn new ways to handle conflict and actually implement these new procedures and keep acting on them until they become habits takes time. A lot of time. It takes 21 days to cement a habit and that’s when you’re doing the action daily.
When you are looking at conflict, you have to look at what is happening in the system, not just what is happening with respect to one or two individuals. What are the unspoken rules with respect to conflict in the organization? Are there certain people who are allowed to be “high maintenance?” I have seen this with high performers, owners, friends of owners, those with tenure or seniority, and more. Is the company really going to do anything about these people’s behaviors? Or are the rest of the people simply expected to tiptoe around these people?
Is the company so hierarchical that there is no place for true discussion among those of different ranks? Is the expectation simply that those below will do what they are told to do by those above? This often means that those below will be blamed for the conflict and told what they need to do, without anyone above taking a moment to listen to why this is happening.
Is there an unspoken rule that everyone gets along, that there is no conflict in the organization? This can drive conflict underground and you will see it coming out in passive-aggressive ways. This also can result in no accountability for bad behavior.
To move workplace conflict from dysfunctional to functional, you have to look first at what is causing the conflict.
- Put on your investigator hat and start asking questions. Be curious. Be open-minded. Make your questions as open-ended as possible. Don’t presuppose that you know the answer — you will start to hear only things that support your answer and discount everything that doesn’t. Get an outsider’s perspective.
- Call in someone else, like me, to do the investigation for you and/or to talk the situation through with.
Only after you know what is causing the conflict, both from a systems perspective and at a personal level, can you effectively address the conflict and move it from dysfunctional to functional.