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Turn Conflict Into Cooperation

“Turn Conflict Into Cooperation”

Resolve employee disputes without rancor.

Building a fast-growing business requires teamwork. But your employees may not mesh and The result? You spend too much timlack the chemistry to cooperate.

e managing conflict rather than leading your company. And that can strip away much of the joy that comes from entrepreneurial success.

By taking steps to resolve employee disputes so that workers learn to cooperate, you can create a more harmonious workplace with more motivated, satisfied workers. Employee retention will increase as individuals trust each other and collaborate more freely. With unmanaged employee conflict being the largest controllable cost in today’s workplace, you can save money and boost productivity by transforming strife into teamwork.

Employees respond to your cues. If your communication style is conflictive and confrontational, they’ll act the same. But if you handle disputes in a calm, professional manner, your staff will too.

Soften hard edges

Conflict thrives in an environment of fear, stress and defensiveness. If you’re too busy to get to know your employees — and they’re intent on pouncing on each other’s mistakes to advance their own standing — then your workplace is a breeding ground for antagonism.

Though you’ll never stop arguments from erupting, you can develop ways to defuse conflict at the earliest stages:

  • Emphasize resolution, not blame. Teach employees to solve their own problems. Approach combatants with the question, "What steps will each of you take to solve this?" Adopt a positive, forward-looking tone. This reduces finger pointing and holds employees accountable for finding ways to work together.
  • Set up a "solution room." Reserve an area for employees to hash out their differences free of interruption. Stock the room with note pads and flip charts so that individuals can map out their differences on paper. Writing down what caused a conflict can help both parties to empathize and accept opposing views.
  • Welcome bad news. When you chat with employees, prod them to tell you what’s wrong as well as what’s right. Ask, "What’s the toughest thing you’re dealing with now?" or "What would make it easier for you to cooperate with your co-workers?" Don’t scowl the minute they raise a conflict or insist you "don’t want to hear about it." This response builds tensions that may explode later.
  • Peel the onion. Encourage employees to examine why they’re squaring off. Look beyond the first or even the second reason they give. Keep asking, "Why?" so that they plunge deeper to explore what riles them. For example, if employees say they’re fighting over office space, prod them to explain why they care about that so much. They may admit what they really care about is safeguarding their influential role or fending off rival encroachments by ambitious newcomers.

Master the art of mediation

Many business owners respond to employee conflict by shouting, "Stop it!" or "We don’t have time for this!" But stifling outbursts usually only raises the anxiety level.

Realize that arguing workers probably don’t care that you’re under the gun to process orders or that a big customer will visit any minute. When conflict erupts, disputants are often so consumed by "winning" the argument or at least saving face that they disregard business priorities.

Even if you’re a great referee and try to nip conflict at its earliest stages, you may find that intractable problems can intensify. The result: Unchecked conflict escalates into an ongoing battle, and employees’ confrontational attitudes become entrenched. This makes cooperation impossible.

In these cases, you must redirect their hostility into finding a resolution. How? Use mediation — a skill that requires patience, perseverance and a willingness to set aside your emotions so that you come across as fair and neutral.

  • Bring employees together. Don’t speak to workers separately because you’ll wind up serving as a conduit rather than a mediator. You’ll find it hard to convey another employee’s position without sounding as if you’re taking that person’s side — and that will anger the employee you’re speaking with.

    Getting everyone in the same room levels the playing field. And everyone will hear what everyone else is saying, making it easier to reach a speedy resolution.

  • Express your goal. Begin by establishing an objective for the meeting. This lets your employees know what to expect and sets the proper context for discussion. Here’s an example of how to introduce a mediation session:

    My goal is to get you two to work together well. While I can’t make you like each other, I must insist that you respect each other and give your best effort to help us grow this company. I’m going to ask each of you to describe the conflict and propose solutions. I’m not looking to blame either of you; I simply want to listen to both sides and resolve this.

  • Emphasize process over content. When dealing with combatants, redirect their focus away from the content of their hostile remarks to the process of how they’ll communicate. By establishing ground rules, you buy time for them to regain their composure while guiding them to reach a resolution. For example, say, "You’re both talking at once and saying things that either I can’t hear or don’t understand. I’d like to hear both sides, so I’m going to ask each of you not to interrupt."
  • Exert firm but positive influence. As a mediator, you must limit your speaking, but make every word count. Strive to talk no more than 20% of the time, while letting the employees hash out their differences the other 80%. But that doesn’t mean you should be passive. Interrupt any speaker who makes insulting or crude remarks. Paraphrase a speaker who’s starting to ramble or growing increasingly hostile in tone or manner. Make eye contact with each employee and insist they look at you — not at each other — when they speak.

Back off!

Many young companies operate in cramped surroundings with employees squeezed into close quarters. The trend toward open cubicles rather than private offices can make matters worse, as workers bicker over shared resources, noise levels and lack of privacy.

Ratchet down tensions by encouraging cooperation. If someone complains about the loud voice of a neighboring worker, for instance, suggest that the employees experiment with solutions (from rearranging their desks to using a "white noise" machine to drown out the din). Although it may take several attempts to resolve a conflict, it’s important to put the onus on employees to reach an amicable solution.

Resolving conflict gets easier when you train employees to analyze the root of the problem. This way, you don’t get dragged into every squabble. Teach them to follow this three-step process at the first sign of conflict:

  1. Play the "empathy game." Suggest employees meet privately. Tell them to start by attempting to understand each other’s position. Instruct them to listen for two minutes as they each describe the conflict as they see it. Then have the listener paraphrase what he or she just heard.
  2. List solutions. Once they agree that they understand each other, have combatants spend 10 minutes writing down possible win-win solutions, defined as action steps that would satisfy both parties.
  3. Find common ground. Have the employees exchange their written lists and discuss the most promising solutions, working together to tweak their best ideas.
This three-step process provides a structure for employees to cooperate. Once they’re comfortable expressing themselves in a nonconfrontational manner, they can address conflict before it escalates. And it’s an easy process to manage: You can ask them to turn in their "solution list" to gauge how hard they’re trying to overcome differences.

Nurture cooperation

When it comes to managing conflict, you get what you reward. Calling employees into your office every time they act up can encourage them to continue combative behavior because they may like having frequent access to you.

The same goes if you pit employees against one other by creating internal competition. Giving a cash bonus to the top producer each month turns all but one of your producers into "losers," thus breeding resentment, jealousy and conflict. But by promising a reward for anyone who exceeds a high level of production — with greater incentives for the entire team if everyone attains the goal — they’ll root for each other’s success.

Some other ways to forge cooperation:

Delegate in pairs. Give an assignment to two employees, making them equally responsible. Tell them to work together to divvy up the task. Establish a deadline and explain how you’ll measure their success as a team.

Praise teamwork. Look for examples of effective collaboration and highlight them. This shows employees you appreciate their cooperative efforts. In staff meetings, recognize employees who complete joint projects successfully. When you notice someone doing a favor for a co-worker, express admiration. Instead of "employee of the month" awards, consider "team of the month" recognition.

Writer: Morey Stettner, a management writer and trainer in Portsmouth, N.H., is the author of "Skills for New Managers" (McGraw-Hill, 2000) and "The Art of Winning Conversation" (Prentice-Hall, 1995).