Member of the Commercial Interest Group of the Hong Kong International Arbitration Centre’s Hong Kong Mediation Council.
Timing, framing and perspective are crucial for resolving workplace conflicts
Betty is a manager at an international fast-moving consumer goods firm. She is smart and efficient, but a bit of a workaholic. When an opening for a senior position became available, Betty was one of the most promising candidates for it, and she became more demanding of her team.
She scolded her subordinates and cancelled all overseas training, as well as some of her subordinates’ annual leave, because her team had a deadline to meet on a major project. Not surprisingly, two of her team members requested an internal transfer after a few months. They criticised her management style and complained about her lack of empathy.
The situation got worse after the transfer requests were turned down. Rumours that Betty had influenced senior management’s decision on the transfers spread. The team became very uncooperative and unproductive. Betty knew this poor working relationship could adversely affect her career path if not handled well.
While she intended to meet with the team to resolve the conflict, Betty believed it would be a challenging discussion. On one hand, she felt she had not done anything wrong, and that an apology would be embarrassing and unnecessary. On the other hand, she knew that her team may be reluctant to communicate with her if she did not apologise.
The Action Required
What should Betty do to ensure the conflict is resolved smoothly?
First, she should consider the timing of her approach. While busy executives often prefer to resolve issues as soon as possible, and tend to initiate conversations immediately, people are often emotional when the tension is high. Having an immediate conversation – especially in an open area – will likely result in further confrontation.
When emotionally charged, parties are less likely to listen effectively, so it’s important to take time to mentally prepare before a difficult conversation. Also, meeting in a quiet and private place will increase the chance of a fruitful discussion.
The framing of the conversation is also important. When the meeting is framed as a difficult one, chances are that it will be tough and people may be harsh and defensive in their approach. Any aggressive behaviour will reinforce the impression that an individual is uncooperative and escalate the level of defensiveness all round.
Instead, it is better to reframe the conversation as constructive and positive. For instance, if an employee is helpful but always late, it is more effective to frame conversations as discussions on improvement. Parties should bring an open mind to the meeting and work together on innovative solutions, such as working flexi-hours, rather than focusing on blame or past mistakes.
Also crucial for a constructive meeting is mutual empathy – if possible. An understanding of each others’ perspective gives those concerned more insight on the issues.
Prior to the meeting, Betty might ask herself: “What would I do if I were him or her?” or “What are the main concerns for people in his or her position?”
All parties should approach the conversation with a willingness to listen. Even when relaxed, some might be more eager to express their ideas and feelings than listen to others, which hinders communication. Steven Covey, the author of the book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, advises that we “seek first to understand ... then to be understood”.
While the parties may not agree with each others’ approaches and opinions, it is vital they acknowledge each others’ wants, needs and rationale – and attempt to find the common ground on the issue.
Each party should be allowed to tell their own story and share their perspective. When presenting their various viewpoints, each party should be given sufficient acknowledgment and be allowed to express their discomfort if necessary.
If certain parties make requests that are declined, these decisions should be explained and justified. William Ury, author of The Power of a Positive No, says it is important to provide alternatives when saying “no” and emphasise the team’s shared core interests.
Conflict in the workplace is unavoidable, so it is crucial that employees and managers know how to face it. Handling conflict correctly requires careful planning, with sufficient preparation and prior research. Parties should find common ground and set agendas while remaining neutral on the issue. People can also have hidden agendas that they might not want to voice, so in some cases it can be useful to bring in a third party to facilitate the discussion and alleviate tension.
This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as Finding common ground to resolve conflict.