With the government shutdown, more than 800,000 employees are out of work for an unknown period of time. Meanwhile, some of their colleagues are keeping the lights on and trying to manage through a very difficult situation. What happens when all of their colleagues return to work? To reintegrate teams will require a lot of productive conversations in some very tense situations.
While the shutdown might be an extreme situation, conflict in the workplace is an ever-present phenomenon. Oftentimes leaders make difficult situations worse and miss an opportunity to effectively engage employees because they are not skilled in conflict management and negotiation.
Conflict is often thought of as a negative aspect of our work and personal lives; therefore, many people believe it is something to be avoided. Others view conflict as a competition that must be won. In reality, conflict is needed to produce personal and organizational growth.
Many people approach conflict from a place of fear, which might compel them to avoid the conflict or to approach it in a personal and aggressive way. A fear-based approach to conflict often deteriorates relationships. When conflict is avoided, people are not being real and stress builds up. Ultimately emotions boil over in an unproductive way or they flee the situation.
Consider conflict and negotiation through a new perspective: the untapped value of engaging in productive conflict. Viewing conflict management as an important employee engagement process and a necessary skill will help people grow and enhance their performance, possibly avoiding health issues such as stress and fatigue.
1. Acknowledge the conflict and feelings (anger, sadness, stress).
2. Identify the root of the conflict (investigate, get information).
3. Learn to reframe (see the positive, gain empathy, vulnerability).
4. Apply the new knowledge to feel good about the situation that created the conflict.
5. Test whether the conflict and the negative feelings are still there. If yes, start over.
6. If not, continue to learn and apply new skills to new situations.
Conflict exists in many interactions. It can be identified as interpersonal (inner), intrapersonal (with other people), intragroup (within a group) or intergroup (with other groups). Is the conflict related to a task or a personal relationship? In both situations, the conflict can be costly in human and financial terms.
Roger Fisher and Daniel Shapiro describe in their book, “Beyond Reason: Using Emotions as You Negotiate,” that emotions are powerful, ever-present and hard to handle. One must pay attention to others’ emotions and their own and understand how to handle them. Emotions can help us relate to others. However, too much emotion can be used to lose one’s autonomy and be used by adversaries to manipulate situations and outcomes. It is important that leaders are trained in conflict management and negotiation.
Conflict management and negotiation are often thought of as two separate disciplines, when in reality they are one. In negotiation, one learns how to deal with situations using a win-win or integrative approach. This is where creativity and ideas are generated.
Every conflict and negotiation situation presents an opportunity for reflection and growth. It is a lifelong learning process that includes feedback, emphasis on emotional intelligence, complexity integration, and global or systems perspective. This is true at the personal and the organization level.
At the organization level, we constantly see how organizations are always growing and shrinking, and then reorganizing. In quickly changing environments, conflict increases, and negotiation becomes even more important as people are dealing with uncertainty.
So how can conflict be considered a good thing? While one cannot control how other people react to disagreements and conflict, one can build skills to handle emotions and approach the situation from a place of awareness and strength.
When approached constructively, conflict can increase employee engagement. For example, three of the biggest drivers of employee engagement are an employee’s relationship with their direct supervisor, employee development and social connections at work. When conflict is handled on both sides with an abundance of self-awareness, openness and emotional intelligence, trust will grow from conflict. When this happens, employees are developing, and building their relationships with their boss and co-workers.
People who learn productive conflict management and negotiation skills help themselves, those around them and their organizations.
Marcella de la Torre is on faculty at the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business. Bob Randall is the CEO of Transcend Engagement.