Jo Ouston from Jo Ouston & Co on dealing effectively with workplace conflict
Workplace conflict has a huge impact on businesses and organisations, especially when they are under pressure. If handled badly, it is expensive and casts a negative cloud over everyone involved, directly or indirectly. It poisons the atmosphere and distracts people from building and running a productive organisation.
In my experience, the more you rely on processes and structures to deal with conflict, the more you generate distrust and entrenched views. No one really wins – even if you ‘win’.
I’m not of course talking about disciplinary processes related to poor performance or conduct issues. Most organisations will have policies and procedures to follow and advisers to help them.
Conflict is more often caused by a clash of interests or opinions and at such moments we have our own way of seeing a situation – our ‘angle’. It’s made all the more complex if one party is more senior than the other because then power and levels of authority may be involved.
In many situations the members of a group will have different levels of expertise and it is quite possible that the person who is most expert might also be the most junior in hierarchical terms.
The authority of expertise
At Jo Ouston & Co we work a lot on status – holding it and giving it. In this instance I’ve described perhaps the junior colleague would hold high status as the expert despite lower status in seniority terms. Indeed, we would want them to be confident in their expert opinion and we need them to hold high status to be credible as the expert.
We tend to assume that if we are at a meeting with very senior, high status people we cannot also hold high status. Actually it would be very alarming if the technical expert in the room deferred to the senior general manager on a matter of technical significance.
This context as it relates to the seniority is transparent. What is more difficult is if you are, say, in a normal meeting with colleagues and conflict arises within your team – perhaps on how to handle a departmental change or a new project.
A more complete picture
Understanding what motivates others enables us to empathise with their position without judging them. Equally, being clear about our own motivation and expressing that clearly enables others to recognise the issues that we face.
Recognising and dealing with potential conflict depends on the ability to consider the motivations and behaviours of others instead of jumping to conclusions. This way, all parties involved can arrive at a fuller shared understanding of the real issues and find a way forward that is acceptable to all.
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