Conflict Resolution in the Workplace: Identifying the Hidden Sources of Conflict
By Talia Eisen, Vice President
I am often called in to work with teams or sets of individuals in conflict when personalities seem to be clashing. Clients will often describe for me personality clashes, differences in “style,” and communication problems. Typically, one individual appears more reasonable or accommodating, or a better fit for the organization, while the other is seen as troublesome. However, once I am working with the people in conflict, my job is to put on my Sherlock Holmes hat and see if I can discover the true cause of the conflict.
One of the basics of my work as an Organization Development consultant and leadership coach is to look not at individuals as culprits, but at whole systems and how they impact the behaviors and norms and culture that is the root of the conflict. If I only look at one person’s “style” or behavior, then I would be missing the real issue. Because whatever the person’s style (and we all have things we need to learn to get along better with others), there are always ways the system is contributing to the problem.
To begin with, as we know, it takes two to tango. It is never one person causing the problem. Although much of the tension may circle around that person, and their choices and behaviors may contribute greatly, they are definitely not acting alone. If we only address that person in the equation, we won’t really solve anything. So in order to work through conflict in groups or between individuals, the first thing I do is look at all the elements that are effecting the situation, not just one or two people.
However, the next mistake would be to address the conflict as an interpersonal one, as a relationship problem. Although it may seem that two people are just not getting along, (and they may indeed be behaving badly,) the root of the conflict in most cases is not about their personalities. More often, the root is based in how they are interacting with unclear processes and different approaches to HOW they are doing their work. It is as simple as sorting out misunderstandings, miscommunications, and unclear processes around shared work. With that said, doing this sorting out can be challenging. By the time I am called in to help with a conflict, there is often greatly eroded trust, poor perceptions of each other, discouragement and frustration that will get in the way of the work they need to do together to fix their shared problems.
Working with a third party such as myself can be a great way to sort through the trust issues that keep people from working effectively on their challenges. Those within the organization, even the most well-meaning manager or best trained HR professional, are hindered by two things. 1)They appear to have some partiality – whether they appear to favor one party, or seem to have allegiance primarily to the company and 2) They are part of the system and may not be able to “see” the structural issues such as process and culture, as easily as an outsider can. We know that it is so much easier to see a friend’s problems and solutions than our own. In the same way, having a neutral outside perspective helps us see the problems clearly and can be very effective in finding a meaningful and lasting solution.
When I work with conflicts of this kind, my first order of business is to develop forums for trusting, productive conversation. This isn’t an easy thing to do and requires a commitment from the parties involved to come to the table willing to work on things. Very often, that simple commitment to try again, the safety to do so without blame and repercussions, and a clear look beyond personality at the systems and behaviors they can improve, results in real conflict resolution and allows people to begin working together again.
For more information, and to find out ways we can help you with conflict resolution and other management skills, call Medicare Compliance Solutions at 562-334-7980.
Talia Eisen is a senior level Organization Development consultant with 10 years’ experience coaching leaders, supporting growth in organizations and a culture of compliance.