In the last few posts on conflict, we’ve been assuming that the opponents in the conflict are working in good faith. But not all conflicts are straightforward disputes, that can be resolved merely with extra focus and new data. And some people may take the attitude that they absolutely cannot work together amicably.
Before you fall into the abyss of frustration and stress that comes with being a permanent umpire, try to work things out the old-fashioned way — through collaborative communication and a commitment to the higher ideals of the organization.
Work Step by Step
Here’s a roadmap so you can retrace your steps through the process of managing and resolving conflict, with links to the relevant prior posts:
- Remind opponents that they’re not the same — that it’s okay to see the situation from different vantage points, and that they should be sensitive to these differences in each other. (More on this in Why Conflict Happens at Work, and How You Can Think About It.)
- Restate the highest purpose of the organization, team, or project to create common ground; identify as many shared values as possible. (More on this in How to Use Shared Values and Empathy to Defuse Conflict.)
- Articulate the facts of the conflict to give participants another chance to resolve or disavow it. (More on this in How to Use Facts and Opinions to Defuse Conflict.)
- Help the opponents in the conflict verbalize what they mean and what they want — and remember that these things may differ from the positions they are taking. (More on this in How to Use Facts and Opinions to Defuse Conflict and How Much Can the Boss Do About Workplace Conflict?)
- Invite or excuse other participants as necessary to streamline or amplify the content or process. (More on this in How Much Can the Boss Do About Workplace Conflict?)
- Assess the various conflict styles and coach the opponents as necessary to ensure good behavior and clarity. (More on this in Why Conflict Happens at Work, and How You Can Think About It and What Should a Leader Do When the Team’s in Conflict?)
- Identify and resolve any structural or cultural barriers to agreement. (More on this in How Much Can the Boss Do About Workplace Conflict?)
- Clarify disagreements over facts versus beliefs or positions. (More on this in How to Use Facts and Opinions to Defuse Conflict.)
- Probe or facilitate to find areas of tacit or partial agreement to build on. (More on this in How to Use Facts and Opinions to Defuse Conflict and What Should a Leader Do When the Team’s in Conflict?)
- List options or new approaches for each area where agreement does not yet exist, and look for new aspects that might form part of a larger pact. (More on this in How to Use Facts and Opinions to Defuse Conflict and What Should a Leader Do When the Team’s in Conflict?)
- Help craft declarations of the steps for going forward in compromise or consensus. (More on this in How to Get Back to Business After a Conflict.)
- Encourage apologies, private or public, if appropriate. (More on this in How to Get Back to Business After a Conflict.)
- Specify or conduct “harmonizing rituals” if groups of people are involved. (More on this in How to Get Back to Business After a Conflict.)
- Give the participants concrete praise about their contributions to the agreement. (More on this in How to Get Back to Business After a Conflict.)
- Monitor implementation and continue praising; revisit any stage of the process as needed. (More on this in How to Get Back to Business After a Conflict.)
Try not to feel discouraged if the process is slow, so dealing with people who can’t let go of conflict usually takes more time than you’d really want to devote to it, but it’s worth it if you can eliminate repeat refereeing assignments.
No More Benefit of the Doubt
Unfortunately, some people so desperately need to feel in control, or need attention so badly that they’re willing to act like the enemy. Some people like the excitement of fighting. These cases may require a greater application of raw authority.
If a participant is not on the level and is throwing up roadblocks — intentionally misleading or manipulating people or behaving passive-aggressively — you need a shift in tone and perspective.
Instead of being generous and saying, “I’m sorry, I don’t think I’m getting this from your point of view,” toughen up a bit. Say: “I’m really not getting your point.” In the face of self-serving, manipulative behavior, you have to be explicit about what is being said indirectly.
Rephrase their indirect or self-serving language to be as concretely as possible: “So you want Tony to give up A even though you’re not planning to give up a single bit of B. Am I understanding you correctly? I may not be, because it doesn’t make sense that that’s what you’d be saying since you already agreed to help find alternatives that both you and Tony could live with.”
It’s rare, but there are times when individuals are so convinced that they should have their way that you can’t broker a peace or convince them to behave better. And it can happen that two wonderful employees, for foolish or rational reasons, just can’t work things out together.
Be sure that you’re not inciting any of these undesirable situations. Then you can consider the opponents’ refusal or inability to collaborate successfully as negative performance information — the kind that has impact on their reviews, consideration for promotion, and ongoing employment.
It’s unfortunate that sometimes the only way to end a conflict completely is when one of the participants is no longer in a role that permits their participation.
Onward and upward,