Fighting with a roommate is fairly bad—resulting in loss of television and refrigerator privileges, to name a few. But fights between workmates, or between managers and employees, are worse. True, no chance of losing access to the microwave, but even more uncomfortable, you have to continue collaborating with your workplace sparring partner to deliver product to the people who pay you. Conflict management can increase the comfort of your workforce, and even avoid the problems—and lawyers—altogether.
The ultimate achievement in conflict management is for the problems never to occur in the first place. "Conflict is an unavoidable consequence of working with others," says Caryn Tilton, president and CEO of training consultancy MyPlaceToLearn, "but I think 80 percent of it would disappear if organizational leaders at all levels were more skilled at creating conflict-healthy work environments."
One way to do that is by teaching employees that there's a difference between the way they communicate at home, and the way they are expected to communicate at the office. "What I always say to folks is, 'When you're on the job, I don't expect you to use your shoes-off self-communications style,'" Tilton says. "You're going to have to develop new [communications] skills not only to work better with each other, but also to deal more professionally with customers."
In the conflict-healthy office of the 21st century, 80 percent of employee disputes should be able to be settled before ever reaching a supervisor's desk, Tilton states. "I train employees on how to go directly to the person with whom they have a disagreement, and handle the issue adult to adult," she says.
To prepare workers to deal with such difficulties on their own, Tilton assigns exercises, or communications "homework," as part of their training. They might, for example, be instructed to walk down one city block expressionless, and the next smiling, and watch how their demeanor affects passersby. "It's just amazing the different response you get from other people, when you, yourself, have different behavior," says Tilton of the moral of the exercise. "While you can't always change the behavior of another person, you can change your behavior to get a different response."