Antidotes to Destructive Conflict
There is no way to prevent conflict in the workplace, not that you’d want to. Conflict, while sometimes uncomfortable, can lead to innovation, creativity and collaboration. But good things don’t necessarily stem from conflict automatically, especially in the workplace. In order to reap the benefits conflict offers and avoid the toxic side effects that can often result, a proactive strategy is required to anticipate unhealthy conflict and prepare for it in advance.
In the work environment, these preemptive approaches are detailed in relationship contracts.
Relationship contracts present myriad benefits to professional partnerships: they outline expectations and commitments; they determine communication frequency and timelines; they establish conflict protocol.
The greatest advantage to conflict protocol is that it helps prevent issues from becoming personal. A well thought out approach includes well defined boundaries and an agreed-to plan on how to overcome obstacles and missed expectations. Once that is handled effectively, working relationships can strengthen, solutions can emerge, and creativity can blossom.
Here are 5 elements of conflict management that should be included in every professional relationship contract:
- Ground Rules: This is the part where expectations are detailed. What activities are the involved parties committing to? What is the time frame in which these activities are expected to be performed? What outside resources or circumstances (people, technology, schedules) impact these commitments? This contract element is the foundation of the agreement, so don’t rush it. Take time to carefully consider roles, responsibilities, and time frames. Use as much detail as possible and eliminate as many assumptions as possible. This will give you a fighting chance at eliminating unhealthy conflict in the workplace.
- Identification: How will you recognize if commitments are being upheld? Sometimes, it’s as simple as seeing a report at a specified time, or confirming a workflow is proceeding at the anticipated pace. But many responsibilities are not as easily observable, such as monitoring performance or maintaining relationships. So decide how the success of those activities can be measured.
- Communication: Just as important as identifying how commitments are kept or not is the method in which those observations are related. If you agree to have a report filed by 10 A.M. on Monday mornings, do you want a personal office visit at 10:01 should that deadline be missed? Or will an email later in the morning or afternoon work better? Some people prefer all negative feedback to be delivered face-to-face, others may find that method unsettling. Many people, regardless of good or bad news, prefer texts or emails, or phone conversations. Just work out how and when communications will be exchanged.
- Negotiation: This is really the part that deals with conflict in the workplace. You have laid a foundation of expectations and agreements; you’ve established checkpoints and activity identification, and even how and when you will communicate. This is when it all comes together. There is a problem. Someone has broken an agreement. Someone had missed a deadline. Someone has failed to communicate effectively. Now what? A good start is to agree from the beginning that you will both make efforts to keep the focus on the problem, not the individual. What went wrong? Was it a communication failure or mechanical problem? How do you help mitigate this type of issue in the future? Does a change need to be made in a process? Was a commitment or timeline unreasonable in hindsight? Does your initial relationship contract need to be readdressed? What if you can’t come to a resolution? Will you call in a mediator, and if so, who? How will you know it is time to pull in outside help?
- Resolution: Now that you’ve decided how to get back on course, be sure to meet your new commitments. Make the resolution meaningful. If you’ve agreed to new communication methods – employ them. If you have decided the relationship contract needs modification – modify it. Move forward and analyze the results. Don’t hold grudges or hang onto any negativity if you want to end conflict in the workplace. If a solution has been agreed upon, give it every chance to succeed.