Managing Conflict In The Workplace

Oct. 30, 2000
Most people don't enjoy facing the difficult situations that sometimes occur with co-workers in the workplace. Such situations may arise from honest disagreements over design or engineering issues, personnel or benefits matters, management decisions...

Most people don't enjoy facing the difficult situations that sometimes occur with co-workers in the workplace. Such situations may arise from honest disagreements over design or engineering issues, personnel or benefits matters, management decisions or actions, or from any other situation where human impressions and objectives differ.

There could be double the trouble for engineers who are more likely to feel at home with electrons and bytes, and behave in highly predictable ways, than with coworkers, who often appear arbitrary and capricious. For those of us who have internalized the strict and measurable rules of the physical world, dealing with other people can be both disappointing and frustrating.

Yet how you manage situations of conflict with your coworkers could have a significant impact on your career, often even more than your engineering prowess or your design skills. Those who deal successfully with potential conflicts are far more likely to receive added responsibilities and promotions, in ad-dition to the pay increases and respect that come with them. On the other hand, not dealing successfully with conflict can potentially relegate you to a career backwater, with technical challenges and high pay passing you by.

Why is dealing with conflict an important skill today? It's primarily because there's more of it now than in the past. Workers of all types are more likely to speak up for their own ideas or actions, rather than follow the dictating corporate chain of command. Conflict also sometimes arises as a result of unclear company goals, or when those goals aren't shared equally by all. Rather than working for a single common good, employees and managers seek individual goals, such as promotion, job security, experience, money, and even the proverbial free lunch.

Not only is actual conflict greater today, but even the potential for interpersonal conflicts in the workplace is far greater than at any time in the past. One reason for this is increased time-to-market pressures. The need to rapidly make decisions, establish an engineering direction, and meet project milestones adds elements of tension and stress to an already difficult endeavor.

This makes the workplace a potential minefield for interpersonal conflict. It's especially apparent to an engineer in a position of responsibility, like a project leader or an engineering manager. For an engineer who must work with others to complete a project, the need to manage conflict can spell the difference between success and failure.

In many instances, much of the conflict going on could be avoided if one planned properly. In other cases, it can be managed. Here are some ways to prevent conflict when possible, and manage it when it's inevitable.

Be prepared for potential conflicts. Disagreements with your coworkers shouldn't be a surprise to you. The possibility for conflict exists in many different types of interactions, so if you think ahead, you can anticipate where conflict might arise. Confrontation can start from virtually any decision made that affects others, and it should be anticipated.

If you believe that there's a potential for conflict at an upcoming meeting, take some time beforehand to get together with individual participants and hear out their positions. Try to reach a tentative accommodation. This can be a time-consuming process and may seem like more trouble than it's worth. But it will pay off in better-organized and more-productive meetings, buy-in and support for critical decisions, and a favorable reputation for you in the company.

If you think there may be a disagreement between yourself and another team member on an aspect of your project, perhaps on a design decision, sit down with that person and discuss the facts of the problem. While it may not always lead to a meeting of minds, at least it enables each of you to explore and understand one another's positions. Plus, this makes it more possible to reach some common ground.

Don't personalize disagreements. One of the worst re-sponses to a conflict or disagreement on a decision or opinion is to interpret it as a personal attack and respond in kind. You end up arguing the emotions, rather than the subject at hand. This type of response not only makes the situation even more unpleasant and difficult to resolve, but also leaves bad feelings that could be impossible to repair.

Instead of automatically viewing criticism as a personal attack, you would do well to focus not on the tone of the disagreement, but on the facts of the argument. Listen carefully to what the other person is saying, rather than how he or she is saying it. Take time to think through your position, and address each of the points that person raises in a calm and rational fashion.

In fact, the other party may appear to be personalizing it, either through an inability to properly express any objections, or simply because he or she wants to be insulting. Rising to this challenge will only make the situation worse. Instead, by ignoring the tone of the disagreement, you'll defuse a potentially bad situation and possibly strengthen your position even further.

Likewise, you shouldn't respond to objections or disagreements from others with words or a voice tone that sounds like a personal attack. Even giving the appearance of doing so makes you look petty and out of control to others. It will reduce your effectiveness at your job.

Address the issues, instead of the emotion. This is the natural next step to the previous point. Conflict might come about because you or another party have a real or perceived personal concern. Such topics can be very emotionally charged, and that emotion can be contagious. Everyone involved often responds to that emotion rather than the facts.

Don't get caught up in that emotion. The best way to deal with such issues is to shut out the emotional content of the discussion, and focus instead on the facts. Rarely does a purely personal attack arise. Usually, the matter boils down to an understandable point of view once the emotional content is removed. Focus on and address the point of view, rather than the emotional vehicle in which it's being delivered.

Perhaps the best thing about turning an emotional discussion into a rational one is the effect that it has on those around you. You present yourself as being able to take control of the situation and resolve problems before they escalate. This enhances your image as a problem solver. In addition, you will feel an emotional reward for defusing a tough situation.

Don't avoid situations or decisions on account of potential conflicts. One of the least productive ways to deal with conflict in the workplace is by avoiding either the topic of conflict or the person behind it. That solves nothing, and it can permit an uncomfortable situation to continue for so long that it affects your job performance. It's almost always better to face the source of your conflict and attempt to work out your differences before they reach that point.

That said, though, it could be beneficial to delay a conflict to place yourself in a better position later on. For example, if you feel an emotional reaction toward the problem at one time, it would be better to let your emotions wind down before facing the source of the conflict. Alternatively, you might wish to gather more facts before the confrontation. In either case, you're still working toward resolving the conflict, rather than avoiding it.

Be aboveboard in your actions. Many interpersonal conflicts arise because people don't understand the reasons behind a particular strategy or action, or they haven't been informed of the action. The need for secrecy in the workplace is far overrated. All too often the reasons for keeping something secret are dwarfed by the consequences once the results are apparent. Instead, when faced with the decision to do something secretly or publicly, you should err on the side of open communications. This resolves many conflicts before they even become apparent.

Be willing to listen and compromise. Rarely is your way clearly the best, especially to others who may have different viewpoints. For instance, you might have the best engineering solution, but that solution places an undue burden on manufacturing. Insisting on an approach that doesn't address the needs of every constituent in the company will always precipitate conflict. Worse yet, because it doesn't take into account everyone's requirements, it almost certainly isn't the best solution for the problem. This is the opportunity for everyone to learn about how a solution impacts others.

Most engineers would prefer not to deal with interpersonal conflicts. They rarely seem productive, and even when something good comes out of them, we think that there must be a better way to realize that good.

Yet it's a part of life, and especially a part of working together in teams. If you do it well, you demonstrate a skill that many others don't possess. Although it doesn't involve engineering, it could still have a significant impact on the success of your project.

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