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Conflict in the workplace: having good conflict conversations to increase productivity and well-being

20/05/2022 HR Agentur

The job of a manager is no walk in the park. The numbers have to be right, problems have to be solved and long-term strategies have to be worked out. Along the way, fires have to be put out and conflicts resolved. A conflict in one's own team means a real challenge and is at the same time a situation that probably every manager experiences in the course of his or her professional career. 

Effects of conflicts

There are many reasons for this because wherever people work together, there can also be misunderstandings, differing expectations and mistakes that trigger a conflict between two or more people. Since this disturbs the team structure and cooperation, a conflict should not be accepted silently. Often, an attempt is made to avoid further inflaming the conflict by remaining silent and to preserve harmony. Unfortunately, avoiding the necessary confrontation with the situation that has occurred or different opinions, leads in the long run to a loss of trust and solidarity and thus to hardened fronts or an even greater conflict.

The drama of conflict in a team is most evident in the business consequences and personal impact on people. According to one study, at the time of the survey, a full 25% of the people surveyed were in conflict at work. As effects, the interviewed persons describe above all: 

  • Fear of going to work, 
  • overwhelm, 
  • hopelessness 

and also physical symptoms such as 

  • headaches and stomach aches, 
  • increased appetite or loss of appetite, 
  • high blood pressure and sleep disorders, 
  • to panic attacks and increased burn-out risk. 

On a business level, consequential costs can be calculated due to, among other things 

  • poorer team results, 
  • disturbed operational processes, 
  • increased fluctuation and sick leave,
  • and a bad mood, which can spread from the affected group of people to larger areas,

 observe. 

Every single one of these consequences of conflict should be worth addressing at an early stage - in reality, to make matters worse, these consequences seldom occur alone, but rather accumulate into a complex of problems. With 25% of employees affected, this results in a considerable burden that adds up to massive follow-up costs. 

Therefore, we would like to support you with the following tips for a good conflict discussion in order to avoid or end these effects on your team. With a well-planned conflict discussion and a win-win solution, the motivation of the conflict participants can often be increased even beyond the previous level, since the participants feel taken seriously and the solution contributes to improved working conditions.

Is there a patent remedy for conflict resolution?

The simple answer is: No, unfortunately not. Because there are many different types, conditions and backgrounds through which critical situations can arise. Let's take a look at just one of many aspects: 

The executive is part of the conflict or is not part of the conflict. 

Whether you as a leader are part of the conflict or not in the resolution process has a serious impact on how you yourself can resolve the conflict. A classic two-way conflict in day-to-day management can, for example, be poor performance or certain misconduct on the part of employees. This conflict can generally be resolved very well through well-prepared and executed 1:1 discussions. In another case, part of the team may be in conflict with the manager, triggered, for example, by unfortunate communication or a management style that is unsuitable for the employees. This conflict will be difficult for the manager to resolve alone, as he or she is personally involved and the reasons and drivers of the conflict are less easily revealed. This is more easily accomplished by a neutral person who is involved as a mediator:in. The third possibility is that a conflict is taking place within the team that is independent of the leader. In this case, the leader can take on the neutral mediating role, but there is a risk that, as part of the system, he or she will become a party to the conflict as a result of this “interference”. Therefore, it is recommended to involve an external mediator as a neutral third party in larger, hardened conflicts.

What types of conflicts are there?

When you enter the room and the sparks are literally flowing, you immediately notice that there is a conflict going on. However, there are also conflicts that are not apparent at first glance because they are bubbling under the surface and are quiet and silent. In distinguishing between them, we speak of hot and cold conflicts.

The hot conflicts that are openly acted out are easily recognizable, thus easier to handle and solve. The issue and the parties involved are open and can be directly involved in the conflict resolution process. 

It is more difficult with the cold conflicts because these are to be recognized only by exact looking and listening. Often, destructive behavior, blockades and minimized, formal contact between team members can be perceived. When these behaviors are perceived, the first thing to do is to find out who is involved and what the history of the conflict is. This is because in order to get into conflict resolution, it is important to know the antecedents because cold conflicts are often the result of hot conflicts that have not been satisfactorily resolved. Thus, many unpleasant feelings and stressful situations have accumulated in the course of the conflict. In order to be able to enter into conflict resolution at all, this conflict must first be openly named.

Conducting conflict talks – with a good feeling, systematics and solution orientation

We see that in many cases the manager can solve the conflict well on his own or with mediative support. A conflict meeting is a challenge, but with appropriate preparation, a systematic approach and empathic communication, it becomes a win-win situation for everyone involved. 

We have summarized some tips that will give you confidence in conducting the conversation and reliably initiate the resolution process:

Preparation

  • Before the conversation, think about what you want to achieve with the conversation, what observations you have made, what you want to pay attention to and what annoys or unsettles you.
  • Thinking about your own expectations and possible compromises in conflict resolution beforehand helps to explore your own boundaries. This solution-oriented thinking gives you confidence in the conversation and facilitates finding a solution quickly with fewer iterations. 
  • Be attuned to the possible reactions and emotions of your counterpart. You may encounter any emotion from relief to rejection and anger. It helps to imagine these possible reactions in advance so you can respond appropriately and empathically. 

Approach

  • A good way to structure the conversation and get into a constructive dialogue is the so-called "SAG ES" method.

             S as in: describe the facts 
                   "I noticed that..."
             A as in: Describe impact 
                   "To me, this means..."
             G like: Name feelings 
                   "It makes me feel..."
             E like: Asking how he/she sees the situation 
                   "What is your view of it? How did it come about?"
             S as in: find conclusion 
                   "For the future, I wish for ... / What do you wish for?"

Communication

  • First and foremost, successful communication always involves listening carefully and actively; by doing so, you signal to your interlocutor your intention to resolve the conflict in your mutual interest. If something seems unclear to you, dig deeper to understand the exact circumstances and needs, and repeat what you have understood in your own words. In order to understand your conflict partner, try to put yourself in his:her situation and point of view by changing your perspective. Ask specifically about expectations of you and of conflict resolution, as well as current needs.
  • Pay special attention to your own words and reactions by consciously speaking in the first person and describing how you experience the situation. Avoid destructive approaches such as accusations and attacks, but describe your feelings, wishes and needs to facilitate finding a solution on both sides. Last but not least, apologize without justifications when you learn that you have put someone in an unpleasant situation.

Conflict Resolution

  • Since you initiated the conversation, you could accommodate your:m conflict partner:in and first express their possible solution proposals - i.e., offers of compromise. This can speed up the process of conflict resolution, as the other person gains confidence in your intentions and has more time to sort out their own thoughts on compromise solutions. 
  • The conclusion of the conversation should always consist of making concrete agreements, because the goal of the conversation is to find a common solution and should never be exclusively an exchange about causes and what happened. In fact, conversations without a satisfactory outcome often result in the cold conflicts described above.

Increase well-being and productivity

Preventing conflicts, however, is more resource-efficient than going through the emotionally exhausting and time-consuming conflict resolution process afterwards. When human relationships falter, the impact on effective teamwork is immense; accordingly, conflict prevention is an important leadership task to avoid this spiral. 

Investing in prevention, for example through relationship management, appreciative and empathetic communication, and a good flow of information, not only pays off in avoiding conflict, but also improves collaboration and thus the performance of the team as a whole.

Conclusion: See conflicts as an opportunity

So investing time, conversation, and attention in prevention and conflict resolution pays off. If you use the techniques described above, it is not that difficult to resolve even seemingly intractable conflicts satisfactorily. And in case of doubt, you can always call in a mediator.

And everything is a question of perspective, because the positive thing about a well-resolved conflict is that it has revealed a necessary need for change and that all parties to the conflict undergo personal development in the resolution process. Thus, a conflict that has been overcome can actually be seen as a win-win situation. And the same effect has a lived open discussion culture, through which actual conflicts are avoided.
If you would like to deal with the topic even more intensively or prepare your managers for difficult discussions, we can recommend our communication training "Employee discussions - further development through appreciation". In this training, we show you how to get the message across in a targeted manner, strike the right tone, find the right words and react appropriately and sensitively to emotions in annual meetings, salary negotiations, disciplinary meetings or even meetings to recognize special achievements.

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