HOW TO DEAL WITH INFIGHTING
When your office turns into a battleground between warring co-workers, every word is a weapon and every action potentially explosive. Here’s how to manage the conflict.
in its recent assessment of South Africa’s prospects, the credit rating agency Fitch blamed the country’s woes on infighting within the ANC, which i t said was distracting policymakers and undermining the investment climate. The same situation plays itself out in workplaces around the country. And while the stakes may be slightly lower than national economic destruction, your team’s constant fighting will inevitably divert your attention from the real operational priorities.
Few people thrive amid conflict, but it is important not to try to supress or ignore tensions. You want strong, determined go-getters on your team, but having a few alpha personalities in the office will inevitably lead to clashes. Recognise that conflict can’t always be completely avoided (let go of your dreams of spontaneous Kumbaya-singing around the water cooler), accept that some people will never get along and that you can only manage the situation.
The first crucial step in managing infighting is to bring it out into the open, says Karen van Zyl, a consultant at The Anger and Stress Management Centre in Pretoria and Sandton. “Ignoring it will not make it go away, it will probably only worsen the conflict.”
Ask all parties to write down their assessment of the situation and their views on the reasons for the conflict. Ask them to express how they are feeling about the situation and how things could be resolved. These submissions could be anonymous, if required. Carefully work through all the contributions to get a better understanding of what is going on.
Then, call all parties together to discuss the situation and bring in a talking stick. Famously a tool used by the Sioux people in the US, the talking stick is passed on from each participant to another and only the person holding the stick is allowed to speak. This will give each member of your team the chance to state their case without fear of disruption or being supressed.
The most important thing is to create a space where everyone feels that they
Be clear about boundaries, how team members are allowed to speak to one another and the language that can be used.
are heard, says Van Zyl. “Each of your team members needs to know that they are taken seriously.” During the meeting, encourage your team to empathise with their co-workers: ask them to explain the situation from the counterparty’s view.
When agreement can’t be reached during the meeting, consider bringing a mediator on board.
Ask someone from outside your department (even outside your company) to provide an objective assessment, says Van Zyl. This is especially important if you are seen to be taking sides. An objective view amid an emotional situation can be quite helpful to resolve tensions and give a clearer assessment of possible solutions. If the conflict is about a specific issue (like financial management or branding), consider approaching an expert in this field.
How to prevent infighting
The late business management guru Peter Drucker famously said that a company’s culture will eat its strategy for breakfast every time. This is particularly true when you are managing a diverse, strong-headed team. The best strategy in the world won’t help if the culture in your team is not conducive to cooperation. Make sure that respect and other shared norms and values are part of your workplace culture, and that you are leading by example.
Be clear about boundaries, how team members are allowed to speak to one another and the language that can be used. When conflict runs high, often people react in emotional ways that can offend others and things are said that should not have been.
If your own behaviour has not been in line with what you expect from yourself and your team, be willing to apologise immediately, says Van Zyl. “Importantly, however, only apologise for your inappropriate behaviour and do not degrade your own personality traits. We all have the right to our opinions.”
Make sure everyone is clear about your team’s end goal and how it will be achieved. A team that is unsure about where it is heading will pull in different directions. Having a clear rallying point will make it easier to resolve conflicts.
Encourage all team members to assert themselves. When caught in the middle of infighting, many people opt for just keeping quiet. “Often people will choose to just shut up and suck it up to avoid conflict,” says Van Zyl. “In the end, this will be detrimental to their self-esteem and may end up sacrificing their values.” Simmering resentment is a recipe for disaster: instead, encourage your more introverted colleagues to state their issues.
The surest way to defuse infighting and to prevent outbursts of conflict is to be tuned in to your team members at all times. Make the effort to get to know them as people, what their interests are and understand their different backgrounds. Spend time with them to get an appreciation of their view on the world. If you know what makes them tick, you will be more sensitive to what ticks them off. Design interactions and processes to avoid potential triggers. For example, don’t create situations where team members are forced to compete with each other.
Importantly, pay close attention when potentially unhealthy alliances are being formed. Usually these are born out of resentment: listen closely to comments made by your team and make sure you address potential issues as soon as they emerge.
Karen van Zyl Consultant at The Anger and Stress Management Centre