Conflict not necessarily a bad thing

Do you have any advice on handling conflicts in the workplace? I thought I had the personality and interpersonal skills to work well with just about anyone, but lately I’ve been clashing with the head of another department over priorities and resources. Help!

Dear Working Wise: Do you have any advice on handling conflicts in the workplace?

I thought I had the personality and interpersonal skills to work well with just about anyone, but lately I’ve been clashing with the head of another department over priorities and resources. Help! — Conflicted

Dear Conflicted: Conflict is not necessarily a bad thing. Differences of opinion can be positive when they create opportunities to improve the organization or workplace. But left unresolved, conflict can increase stress and lower morale in your workplace, which can cut productivity, reduce customer satisfaction and increase staff turnover.

You may be able to resolve a workplace issue by talking it through with your co-workers in an informal, positive way. For more information and suggestions, read the Handling People Problems at Work tip sheet on the Alberta Learning Information Service (ALIS) website at http://alis.alberta.ca.

If you’re facing an issue you can’t resolve informally, you may need to try a more structured approach like issue-based problem solving. This six-step approach brings together everyone involved in the conflict to talk about the issue.

1. Explore the issues

Identify issues by using concrete examples, including who is involved along with when, how often and where the problems happen. Focus on what others have to say and not how you feel about them.

Ask questions like: Do we have all the details? Is everything out in the open? Do we agree on what we need to talk about? Do we understand how these issues are affecting other people?

2. Understand interests

Everyone involved has needs, wants and fears. Listen to what they need (their interests) instead of their wants (positions). The best solution to the problem is the one that satisfies the most interests.

Share your own interests on the issue and why. Ask open-ended questions to find out what their interests are. Ask why they have a specific position/opinion to discover their interest. Ask more probing questions to understand their fears and concerns.

Focus on areas of common ground without losing sight of different and opposing interests.

3. Develop options

Brainstorm possible solutions that satisfy the shared and separate interests. Don’t judge any options until you run out of ideas.

4. Choose a solution

Ask the group to choose a solution that meets the most interests.

5. Implement the solution

Decide as a group what needs to be done, how the solution will be evaluated, who will do what, what support they will receive, when it will be done and how they will be accountable for following through on the plan.

6. Evaluate the solution

Measure the success of your solution and report back to the group on its success, or the need to develop a new solution.

Issue-based problem-solving is a common-sense approach to resolving workplace conflicts before they become complex and costly. Everyone wins when you listen and respect others while working towards a solution.

For more information on issue-based problem solving, check out the Let’s Talk publication on the ALIS website at http://alis.alberta.ca/pdf/cshop/letstalk.pdf.

You may also want to engage the services of a conflict resolution practitioner or professional facilitator who is trained to help others find solutions without taking sides.

Working Wise is compiled by Charles Strachey, a manager with Alberta Human Services, for general information. He can be contacted at charles.strachey@gov.ab.ca.