When Work Becomes A Battlefield

What do you do when people at work are in conflict, not working as a team or even going out of their way to make work life a misery?  A sales manager friend of mine was faced with this scenario and decided to take action by adopting a rather unusual approach.  His solution; force the 2 parties together to resolve their differences.

My friend was organising transport from Auckland for his sales team to attend their conference in Taupo.  He put the two warring parties into the same car with instructions to “sort your sh_t out by the time you get to conference.”  With just the two of them in the car alone, carrying only resentment for one another, they were left to their own devices to work things out.

Surprisingly they made it to Taupo without killing each other.  Unsurprising, by journey’s end, they still hated each other and were no closer to resolving their differences.  Despite the best intentions of my friend’s ill-conceived plan, his actions caused more pain for the people involved, their work mates and ultimately their customers.

Conflict of this nature is all too common and is unnecessarily tolerated every day.  So is there a way to overcome the conflict that arises from our busy and demanding work places?  Yes there is, here’s an example of a situation I facilitated recently.
In a professional office two employees worked in close proximity but with very different ways of working.  Issues erupted over the allocation of tasks, tackling problems, communication, right down to the temperature setting for the office!  For every preference one person had, the other wanted the opposite.  Things were so bad it was damaging people’s careers, their health and the company’s reputation.

While outsiders can see these things as trivial and petty, for the people involved, the threats are ever-present and the pain very real.  It is from this perspective that I facilitate along with a belief that people always do the best they can.  My job therefore is not to ‘tell’ or ‘advise’ but to help build personal resourcefulness so they make better decisions.

I start with interviewing the parties separately and allow them to tell their story.  I assess their level of commitment to resolving things and challenge any limiting beliefs that are contributing to the situation.  We agree on the ground rules and I set frames on how the process will work.  One powerful frame I use is “failure is not an option.”

When I bring the parties together I use information gathered during the interviews and remain focused on the future, avoiding re-traumatising people with past events.  While there’s no set order to the process I will use a facilitator and coach’s  most powerful tool; questions!  Here are some I typically ask.

If neither of you want a relationship of conflict, then what type of relationshipdo you want?
This re-directs their focus and energy toward a positive outcome.  Follow up questions detail what they want specifically, why, how, where, when etc.

What are some of the other person’s strengths that you admire?  
Another question that re-directs focus and changes perspectives.

What do you have in common that you’re currently not recognising?
This helps establish common ground, forming a good base to work from.

You are both on the same team, so what are your team’s objectives? 
The question establishes they’re on the same side.  Follow up with “So, is your behaviour helping or hindering your team reach its objectives?”

When you are focussing on one another’s behaviours, what are you NOT focussing on?  
Focussing on people’s faults means they’re not focussing on the needs of customers, managers, colleagues etc.

If you were a neutral witness to this conflict and offering advice to the two of you, what would you say?
This question helps parties ‘distance’ themselves from the conflict and consider solutions from a new perspective.

This is not the full list of questions I ask, but you can get an idea of what I am doing when working to resolve conflict.

The skill to facilitate a conflict resolution is hugely valuable!  While conflict can be positive and helpful, it can also be highly destructive.  If you would like help to develop your skills to resolve conflict or have me facilitate a conflict situation for you, please contact me.

Geoff Wake

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