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.

Finweek English Edition - - FRONT PAGE - By fin­week team edi­to­rial@fin­

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

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