1. Anticipate and plan for conflicts. Anticipating conflict is not looking for a fight. It’s understanding that certain situations are more likely to result in conflict. These might include delivering bad news, competing priorities, deadline stress, previous negative experiences or conflicts, and personality and behavioral style differences.
It might seem that work conflicts are about work, but also consider existing relationships and the perceived importance of the work outcome to help identify and head off potential conflicts (Figure 1).
Leaders who have assessed the potential for conflict can take steps to minimize it. They must understand their behavioral preferences and those of the other person. What is important to each party? How do they like to use time — move quickly to business issues or socialize? What information is important to them — facts and detailed projections or personal stories and input from others? How do they make decisions — quick decisions leading to quick action or thoughtful consideration before acting?
Behavioral preferences can derail a situation even without any fundamental business issues. Understanding others’ preferences and taking steps to accommodate them increases comfort, reduces tension and increases employees’ willingness to work productively with others.
2. Handle conflicts as they occur. Sometimes even the best planning can’t prevent a conflict. But advance prep work will help keep discussions professional and focused on the business at hand rather than personal or behavioral issues. Follow these steps when working with others:
• Pay attention to signs of tension. Everyone shows signs of stress, and identifying these clues can head off and reduce the impact of conflict. Not everyone’s tension shows itself in the same way. Some people will show their discomfort by becoming more animated and taking control; others will become quiet and withdrawn. While the clues may be different, they will be noticeable. Watch and listen for when a person’s behavior changes from his or her norm.
• When a person’s tension is rising, think about his or her preferences, such as using time or making decisions. Refocus the discussion toward his or her preferences to lower tension. Try to get all concerns on the table, and then validate the concerns people have shared.
• Move toward mutual agreement. For some people, making a decision is itself considered an accomplishment. For others, moving too quickly creates more tension. With practice, leaders become adept at understanding when — and with whom — to move things to closure. In some situations, ending the interaction without further damage can be considered a win.
Casey Mulqueen is director of research and product development for workplace performance company The TRACOM Group and author of Managing Conflict With Social Style. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.