Managing Workplace Conflicts: Shifts in Focus

Let’s be honest, if an organization has more than one person, there will be conflict. As humans, we’re navigating the organizational agenda, our professional agenda, others’ professional agendas, our personal agenda, others’ personal agendas, etc. 
 
As you can quickly see, there are a lot of competing demands in almost every interaction. In fact, there are some studies that suggest that up to 40% of a manager’s work is managing some form of interpersonal conflict
 
The inability to deal with conflict effectively can be costly in terms of productivity, sharing of information, and turnover. Therefore, it’s critical that managers, teams, and individuals develop skills in both managing conflict effectively and also in using conflict to increase innovation, expand ideas, and support problem-solving.
 
This week, we’re talking about how to support individuals and teams in shifting their focus so that they can effectively manage conflict.

When you change the focus, you move the individuals or group out of a rigid stance to a more collaborative one by influencing them to think differently. Here are three ways of changing the focus that we’ve found very effective.

Focus on the problem, not the person. Move the conversation toward fixing the problem instead of blaming one another. 

  • One of the most helpful things we’ve coached our clients to do when a conflict is brewing, is to shift their physical stance to become a bit more shoulder-to-shoulder with the person they’re having the conflict with, and then hold out their hands in front of them to describe the problem as they see it. 
  • In that moment, the people who are gearing up for a conflict become two people looking at the same problem, or perhaps trying to describe the problem that they’re both observing.
  • The goal is for them to see that the problem is outside of them and together they’re the problem solvers.

Take Joy and her business partner, Evan, who were at odds in almost every conversation. Joy believed Evan was the problem and Evan believed Joy was the problem. 

In one meeting, we asked them to (literally) stand shoulder-to-shoulder and look at the problem they were trying to solve. 

At first, they were silent, so we added that they needed to define the problem they were trying to solve as if they were both looking at it. 

It took a while, but they were able to define the problem, which allowed them to solve it instead of blaming each other.

Focus on exploring higher-level goals. Get people to explore shared interests, higher-level goals, and ask them to consider what really matters for the success of the team / company in the future.

  • When two or more people are stuck, they’re often stuck on something quite detailed. 
  • Shifting the focus to what “all of us want to achieve,” (their shared interests or the organizational goals they need to collaboratively address), can help them unhook from taking a position and digging in.

For example, an Ops team that we work with was stuck in their planning of how to support greater efficiency in their workers. Each of them had their ‘pet’ efficiency process and long lists of reasons why they were correct. The more they talked, the more they dug into their opinions. 

After observing the discussion to see if they could unhook from their positioning, we asked them to individually write down the organizational goals for the work and why success was good for all of them. 

Once completed, each individual read aloud what they’d written. While they used different words, they actually had the same organizational goals and similar reasons why success what good for all of them. 

The shift from their opinions to one of the higher-level goals and success benefits, broke the tension and they started to consider how their different approaches could be woven together to create something truly innovative for their company.

Focus on defining the principles. Ask team members to define the principles they’re using to make decisions and don’t just press forward for the sake of efficiency.

  • In many conflicts, individuals or teams are getting hooked on the need to make a decision quickly because of the frustration of rising tensions and the pressure to please the boss. 
  • If instead, they can name the 3 – 5 principles that will guide their decisions, they’ll individually and together be more successful. 

Consider Jacob, who was managing a group of people who regularly came to him to complain about one another. He had tried a number of things to help them work together to make wise decisions and was getting nowhere. 

We asked what principles the team was using to guide their decisions. His eyes widened.

The next day, he went into his team and said, “I need you to consider using the following principles when making your decision:

  1. Schedule is more important than cost.
  2. This will be a show piece for us, so design matters, and all of you need to be aligned—even if it’s not your first choice. You must be able to genuinely say to others outside the group that ‘this is a good decision’.
  3. It must be approved by legal.”

The decision was made at the next meeting—not magically; but as they came back, time and time again, to the principles, the answer emerged.

As you might imagine, we’ve simplified these examples for the post. These things don’t happen in an instant all of the time, but they certainly do some of the time when there is a change in focus.

Consider how you can change focus in the conflicts you’re in and how you can help your teams do the same.

Stay tuned for next week’s post where we’ll talk about helping individuals and teams make shifts in their behavior to be less reactive to conflict. 

If you’d like support in putting these principles
into action to manage conflict at work
contact us today about our Executive Coaching.

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