Five tips for dealing with workplace conflict

Tom Tripp

Studies suggest that managers spend about 25 percent of their time managing conflict at work. Unfortunately, many manage conflict badly, because they escalate the conflict, or alternatively, avoid it altogether. Rather than escalate or avoid, here are five well-tested tips for managers to resolve conflicts.

1. “A lean compromise is better than a fat lawsuit.” – George Herbert
Many managers believe that a good solution is one that pleases nobody. On the contrary, solutions that please nobody are terrible solutions. While upsetting everyone equally may be fair, pleasing everyone can be equally fair. In reality, it may not be possible to give everyone everything they want. All managers have to do is find a solution that makes all disputants better off than they would be without a solution. Making them feel good about such a solution is a matter of calibrating expectations, making it clear to them that getting a little bit of what they want is better than getting nothing but more unresolved conflict.

2. “Never attribute to malice that which can be explained by stupidity.” – Hanlon’s Razor
When telling their side of the story, people often confuse speculation for fact. They don’t just tell managers what the offense was, but they add why the person committed the offense.

It is natural to speculate about others’ motives when people are hurt. Unfortunately, speculation presents two problems. First, in the face of ambiguous evidence, people err toward seeing malicious motives instead of benign motives, or even a lack of motive. Second, people often treat speculation as fact. Listen for claims about other’s sinister motives, then ask the complainer, “How do you know that? How do you know it wasn’t just an accident?”

3. “There are three sides to every story, baby: yours, mine, and the cold, hard truth.” – Don Henley
There is always more than one side to the story. Thus, when mediating employees’ disputes, managers need to have the patience to get the unbiased truth before making judgments and taking sides. Patience is required because complaints from employees about other employees (or customers) rarely come to one’s attention in a well-investigated, balanced package, with testimonies from both sides. Instead, complaints come from one side first, typically from the point of view of being the victim of another’s unprovoked act. A manager’s first instinct may be to share in the employee’s moral outrage and enact instant justice. However, the second person tells a similar story, but with all the roles reversed: “Hey, I’m the victim here; she started it, not me.” Those are the two sides of the story, and both can’t be true, and neither usually is. The truth lies somewhere between. Find it before acting, even before letting moral outrage get all worked up.

4. “Lightning doesn’t fall from a blue sky.” – Folk Wisdom
Getting to the truth is hard, in part because people act as if lightning falls from a blue sky. That is, people often claim that whatever offense they have suffered “came out of nowhere,” “without warning or cause” and was “unjustified.” Because lightning doesn’t fall from a blue sky, it is important to ask yourself, what storm clouds did the complainer ignore or conveniently forget to include in the story? Moreover, how might the complainer have precipitated or contributed to the beginning of the conflict?

5. “Speak when you are angry, and you’ll make the best speech you’ll ever regret.” – Ambrose Bierce
Anyone who has ever sent an angry email immediately after writing it understands Bierce’s warning. Angry emails inflame conflict rather than extinguish it, and the writer inevitably feels different later – an emotional change so predictable and yet always forgotten in that moment of anger. “I’m so mad that I’ll never feel differently!” Click send.

Mediating others’ disputes may frustrate managers. Can’t these employees just be professionals?! As anger rises, remember that it tempts one to strike the offender with righteous, clever reprimands. But it’s better to be helpful than clever, to find solutions than to vent anger. So do not speak, orally or in email, when angry.

This edition of Tip of the Week was written by Tom Tripp, Professor of Management at Washington State University’s Carson College of Business. He can be reached at ttripp@vancouver.wsu.edu.

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