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Managing Conflict at Work

SMEs deal with a range of common challenges, but a uniting theme across all industries is that of managing conflict. At the Federation of Small Businesses, we can help you to find workable strategies and techniques to deal with conflict, and to successfully manage it.

Managing Conflict at Work

Conflict can be positive

The first thing to accept is that conflict and leadership tend to co-exist quite naturally. Leaders come in all shapes and guises, but they will usually be willing to embrace a little healthy conflict in order to stimulate creativity. Without some properly-managed conflict, the work environment can become stagnant. However, there is a significant difference between positive conflict, and negative conflict.

Positive conflict essentially describes a situation in which a business leader challenges existing practices and the status-quo, particularly where he or she feels that improvement is required. If the leadership challenges this supportively, openly and with appropriate communication, the conflict situation will rapidly become one of positive change and evolution. Some staff, however, may be resistant and thus respond in a confrontational manner. These individuals will require support in order to embrace change and adopt new practices - or they may simply be a poor fit for the business as it evolves.

Identifying underlying motivation

Unfortunately, most workplaces tend to have at least one staff member who uses emotional blackmail and exhibits confrontational behaviour, with its associated destructive effects. Business owners and managers will need to develop conflict resolution skills in order to identify the difference between destructive behaviours and the simple expression of discomfort from otherwise good staff as they work through a change process.

Failure to address conflict will compromise productivity, stifling creativity and creating barriers to collaboration. Ultimately, profitability may be affected. Proactive conflict resolution will enhance employee engagement and create a healthy work environment. Clearly not everything can be smooth sailing all the time, but the message should be that the business is there to support, help and manage everyone through essential changes, giving them the tools and techniques that they require to succeed in an ever evolving world.

So what causes conflict in the first place? There is an almost inexhaustible list! At the Federation of Small Businesses, our members reference personal issues, competition, jealousy, discrepancies in pay, hierarchies, personality clashes, power struggles, differing levels of performance and ego as typical sources of conflict. What we see, however, is that the vast majority of these problems lead back to a failure in communication and an inability to manage emotions. So how can organisations help staff and managers to deal with conflict in a constructive manner? A conflict resolution strategy is essential.

Defining the right behaviours

Agree a framework of behaviours that are acceptable, using values that drive those behaviours. Write these down, so that your business demonstrates good practices in leadership, collaboration, peer working, team building and talent management. Make sure that everyone has a clear job description so that there is no uncertainty as to expectations. Refine and document a clear and sensible organisational hierarchy, supported by a coherent framework of HR policies and procedures.

Addressing conflict

Take a strong leadership stance and tackle any signs of conflict immediately. You will never entirely avoid it, but if you resist the temptation to ignore conflict, it will never be allowed to take root and grow. Be proactive and vigilant when seeking out potential conflict hot spots and address them as you identify them.

Understand the power of 'what's in it for me'

You must understand your team's motivations and personal viewpoints. Conflict resolution is entirely predicated on helping each party to achieve his or her goals and objectives and in finding a compromise or acceptable route that will best facilitate this.

Pick your battles

If a situation creates conflict, then it suggests that it is of sufficient importance to merit resolution. Open communication lines and be practical; take steps to avoid team members from adopting challenging positions and from distancing themselves from a potential resolution. However, it is essential to resist the temptation to treat staff as juniors, stepping in immediately at the first sign of any tension; first allow your team to try to reach their own resolution, whilst you closely monitor the situation.

See the opportunities in conflict

As with every business situation, conflict offers an opportunity to learn. Where disagreement exists, there is potential to develop and grow. As a business leader, it is imperative that you take the opportunity to learn from these experiences, developing your leadership capability and team building expertise. If properly managed, differing positions can stimulate fresh thinking and innovation. Wise business leaders will work to encourage diversity of opinion. At the same time, they must ensure that it is managed in a professional and respectful environment, wherein staff are guided towards positive team-based outcomes, rather than a 'win or lose' scenario for the individuals concerned.

Remember, as a member of the Federation of Small Businesses, you have access to Employment Law Advice through Abbey Legal Protection, providing 24/7 access to lawyers and - through the insurance scheme - legal representations in employment tribunals and similar situations.

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