January 03, 2014

Workplace conflict: How comfortable are you?

By Gerald McGroarty

Some people handle conflict at work well; others try, but get disastrous results. A lot depends on your level of comfort with conflict.

Conflict is like a bad hair day. It can happen at any time and, as hard as you try to deal with it, band-aid solutions often only compound the problem.

Make no mistake: Managing conflict poorly is one of the driving forces behind team dysfunction and workplace inefficiency. It's also one of the major reasons why employees aren't engaged or choose to leave an organization (either voluntarily or involuntarily). Conflict can range from petty personality clashes to serious productivity issues, and therein lies the problem — conflict is everywhere.

Dr. John Marshall is president of the Self Management Group, one of the world's leading administrators of psychometric profiling and an expert on talent identification and team effectiveness. He's seen first-hand how conflict affects teams and organizations. "The biggest issue with managers who are either uncomfortable with conflict or do not have the skills and training to deal with conflict is the avoidance of poor-performing employees," he says. "This not only creates a culture of mediocrity, but also sends a message to top-performing employees that they are not valued for their productivity."

Positive and negative conflict exists everywhere, but how we deal with it makes the difference between resolving issues and prolonging them. It's also a critical element in effective teams and high organizational performance.

Because conflict management starts with the individual, I want you to reflect on how you deal with conflict and how that plays into how you resolve conflict with those around you.

Where are you on the conflict comfort scale?

Visualize a horizontal scale. On the far left are people who are very comfortable with conflict; on the far right, those who avoid it at all costs, with varying degrees of comfort in between.

Where do you think you sit on that scale? Are you very comfortable, comfortable, uncomfortable or very uncomfortable? Now, think of where your co-workers might land. I'm sure you won't be surprised if some of your teammates are the complete opposite of you.

At each point on the comfort scale, there are strengths and weaknesses. Think for a moment of workplace conflict in terms of dealing with traffic at an intersection. The red, green and amber lights signal, respectively, stop, go and caution. Here are the lights to watch for at each point on the scale:

1. Very comfortable

  • Green light. It's easy for you to deal with conflict. You look forward to it and have no problems engaging in frank conversations or presenting unpopular points of view.
  • Amber light. Not everyone feels the same way and if you approach others with the same kind of directness that you might prefer, for example, it could be a recipe for disaster when building relationships or solving problems with certain co-workers.
  • Red light. People who are very comfortable with conflict often create unnecessary conflict without even knowing it. Do you know someone who loves to debate every issue or can't let things go?

2. Comfortable

  • Green light. Generally, you have no issues with conflict. You appreciate getting to the heart of the matter and enjoy resolving issues within certain boundaries.
  • Amber light. There really isn't anything bad for people who are comfortable with conflict.
  • Red light. Be aware of your relationships with people who avoid conflict. Dealing with issues may be easy for you, but be empathic towards those who find conflict challenging.

3. Uncomfortable

  • Green light. You tend to avoid conflict where possible, but that doesn't mean that, depending on the nature of the conflict, you absolutely won't deal with it.
  • Amber light. Your natural tendency is to avoid conflict. As a result, you may miss opportunities to resolve issues because your preference is to let things slide.
  • Red light. Often people who are uncomfortable with conflict need to work harder at understanding the process of dealing with it. Knowledge is power, so take the time to learn more about the benefits of conquering conflict.

4. Very uncomfortable

  • Green light. If you encounter very little conflict on the job, you will mostly likely excel in a stress-free environment.
  • Amber light. If conflict is a regular occurrence at work, there is an extremely strong chance that stress and anxiety will play a major role in your day-to-day existence and negatively affect your performance and productivity.
  • Red light. There is nothing pretty if you find yourself in this category. People who are very uncomfortable with conflict often let things build up, and then can snap. That snapping can take the form of an emotional outburst or the complete opposite — shutting down or becoming disengaged.

It's important that you recognize who you are and how you relate to others. The more self-aware you become, the better your chances are of resolving issues, improving relationships and becoming more effective and valuable to your team and your organization.

And if you feel your conflict-management skills need work, you can start to improve your game by better understanding the impact of conflict. Read articles, take a course, talk to people who deal with conflict well, introduce a conflict resolution process into your life — do whatever it takes to increase your conflict acumen, and you will see a dramatic, positive improvement in how you deal with it.

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