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Harvey Mackay: Conflicts are inevitable, but you can learn to ease them

December 4, 2018

We all get angry at work sometimes.

Conflicts in the workplace can get out of hand when people stop listening to each other and instead concentrate on defending their positions. The late management guru Peter Drucker said, “The only things that evolve by themselves in an organization are disorder, friction and malperformance.”

In my opinion, the three are closely related. And most of those issues are caused by friction — workplace conflicts. Serious office feuds can really hurt productivity. It’s hard to use a computer when you’re wearing boxing gloves.

But conflict in the workplace doesn’t have to turn into full-scale war. Smart managers don’t let their emotions get out of control. Smart employees also need to keep their tempers in check. Before exploding at an employee or co-worker, remember the following advice:

Listen to their story: You have to get problems out in the open before you can resolve them. Much of the time, an employee simply wants to be heard. Sit back and let the person speak. Employees will be more willing to listen to other points of view once they’ve had a chance to express their feelings. And if you realize you’re not saying anything constructive, stop talking. Let the other person continue until he or she realizes you’ve disengaged from the power struggle.

Pay attention to your behavior: What’s your tone of voice? What is your body language saying to the other person? Focusing on your reactions and emotions will help you stay calm. Try to discern whether the other person wants something from you that he or she isn’t asking for.

Identify the real problem: Often the stated reason for a disagreement masks a hidden issue. You might be upset when an employee misses a deadline, but the root cause of your anger may be a perceived lack of respect for you. Ask yourself and the other person (or people), “What’s really getting in the way of a solution here?” Find the real obstacle and you’ll be in a much better position to remove it.

Focus on the big picture: Disputes can be messy, with problems overlapping each other. Don’t get too involved in the details, but keep an eye on the overall impact of the problem. Once the main issues are on the table, trivial disagreements tend to disappear.

Don’t push too fast: Even when the solution is obvious, don’t suggest it too quickly. People need time to process their feelings about the situation. An employee may want the other person to understand how he or she feels. Solving the problem in five minutes won’t create a real sense of resolution. If possible, take some time to discuss options and think things over before offering advice or imposing a solution.

Take responsibility for communication: As a manager or employee, you have to clear the air — even if the other person tries to let the problem drop. Insist on an open, honest dialogue that lets everyone express his or her needs and opinions honestly.

Stay positive: Take a deep breath and try to control the impulse that makes you fight back. Try to find something positive, if nothing else, just the fact that you’re gaining experience dealing with conflict.

Focus on the here and now: Don’t bring up problems or disagreements from the past. Stick to the present situation. Keep words like “always” and “never” out of the conversation — such as “You’re always late to work” — to avoid blowing the argument out of proportion.

Ask yourself, “Would I rather be right or happy?” In some cases, being right may be more important — when dealing with safety issues, for instance. In other situations, you might be better off letting the other person “win.” Be gracious in any event.

As my mother used to say, you don’t have to like someone, but you have to get along.

Two managers didn’t like each other, and made it clear to everyone by finger-pointing and name calling. When problems arose, they took great pleasure in blaming the other’s department or decision-making rather than trying to solve the problem.

It got so bad that their boss called them both in for a meeting. The insults and blame game started before they had taken their seats. But the boss put an abrupt end to their squabbling.

She said, “Let’s just get one thing straight here. This is all my fault. I’m the one who hired both of you.”

Mackay’s Moral: Getting along goes a long way toward a productive workplace.

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