Mark was on the verge of losing it. A deadline was approaching for an important client and the success of the project was hinging on his teams activities.
Mark had been receiving bad news all day and it didn’t look like it was going to improve. Before heading to lunch he received an e-mail update from one of his direct reports. The main supplier of material was behind on orders and the order was not going to be received on time.
The deadline wasn’t going to be met. Mark was furious at his team and their lack of execution. He needed to make sure this was never going to happen again so he walked out of his office, looked down the hall at his employees and let a string of expletives flow out of his mouth that would have made any sailor proud. To make sure everyone knew how upset he was he let the F-Bomb fly for good measure at the end. You would think there was plenty of talk around the water cooler and lunch room that day, but there wasn’t — this was normal behavior for Mark and everyone was used to it.
Why do people behave badly at work? Why can’t everyone just get along? I often get asked by leaders how they can help reduce conflict in their organizations. My response is three fold.
One, conflict in an organization is not inherently bad. Conflict has many benefits in the workplace. Although conflict can be messy and dealing with the tension of not getting along with others is difficult, conflict provides opportunities to change and improve. Conflict allows us to express how we feel. When employees are free to express their thoughts it has been shown to boost morale. (The secret is to know and understand how to express thoughts in a positive, constructive manner and not become irrational or demeaning to others. This deserves a whole column in itself.)
The second way to deal with and reduce conflict is to understand the background and experience of those you work with. To illustrate my second point take a good look at this camping picture.
What feeling does the picture invoke? Is there excitement at the opportunity to be outdoors in the fresh air, sitting in the evening around a warm campfire while eating s'mores and listening to ghost stories and crickets? Or do you only think of bugs, sleeping on the ground and no toilets? Your viewpoint is based on your experiences with camping. If you were raised to camp and had wonderful experiences as a child than most likely you are going to have fond memories and thoughts when viewing the picture. If your parents weren’t the camping type, then you may have a visceral reaction to the picture and the thought of camping would not be considered a fun vacation.
We all have different feelings, experiences and thoughts on a subject. These feelings and experiences cause us to have different opinions and expectations which can lead to conflict. Someone who loves camping has a hard time understanding someone who doesn’t. The same goes for work situations, you may be increasing conflict because you are not stopping to understand someone else’s view and experiences. Stephen Covey’s admonition to Seek First to Understand is good advice when you find yourself in a conflict situation.
Third, conflict occurs when you have strong feelings and opinions about a topic. Often, we may not realize how strong we feel about something until someone disagrees with us. Strong opinions often lead to strong emotions and strong, unchecked emotions bring about conflict. Stop for a moment and find out what is the reason behind the strong feelings and opinions.
Learning how to deal with conflict is a learned skill and behavior. Master this skill and it will serve you well in the workplace and in your personal life. Remember, it is your career.
Dr. CK Bray is a career and organizational development expert who has worked with numerous organizations, ranging from Fortune 500 companies to emerging start-ups. He can be reached at ck@DrCKBray.com or find his blog and more at www.DrCKBray.com.