31/08/2011

By Gavin Meikle, Head of Learning and Founder of inter-activ

Does your business or at least some areas of it suffer from moaning, bitching & whingeing? If it does, these are all symptoms of low level conflict and they could be costing your business dearly.

Think about it for a moment. What are the consequences of such behaviour - Poor customer service, low productivity, poor quality, and low staff morale to name but a few. So what is the cause of such conflict and what can you do about it?

The underlying causes of conflict

Ultimately I believe that conflict is caused by unmet needs. Consider this scenario. One of your staff is trying to get on and complete an important and urgent sales quotation whilst a colleague at a neighbouring desk is on the phone having a noisy and very lively chat. The longer the distracting conversation goes on the more angry and frustrated the other person gets until finally they snap. They get up, storm over to their neighbour’s desk and unplug their phone from the wall. The ensuing argument halts all productivity and the tension and ill feeling can last for days if not weeks.

Clearly the quotation writer had a genuine need for peace and quiet to complete their document by the deadline and that need wasn’t being met.

Defusing conflict

In order to defuse such a conflict it is vital to acknowledge the unmet need before you try to find a solution. Ignoring the underlying need will tend to cause the issue to escalate and that’s the last thing you want. If you just ask the people involved to apologise to each other you may get compliance but the issue will continue to simmer and is likely to erupt again in the near future. Empathy is a key skill here.

Resolving the conflict

Conflict can only truly be resolved when that unmet need is met. In this situation it might mean that either the person on the phone agrees to make their calls outside or that the person writing the quotation can use another quiet office or perhaps even work from home. In business you must take into account the needs of the business as well as the needs of the individual staff. It may not always be possible to satisfy everyone’s individual needs completely but you may be able to do enough to eliminate most of the conflict.

Preventing conflict

Of course the ideal situation would be if you could prevent such conflicts from happening in the first place. For this to happen, the manager and their team must be open to and aware of each other’s needs. Now this is perhaps the most difficult challenge. Most people are not good at articulating their needs up front. Walking round the office and just asking your staff “What are your needs” is unlikely to achieve much, at first anyway. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to uncover what lies behind their apparently negative behaviour. The best managers and leaders I have known have all invested time in getting curious about their people and in particular what they need individually to perform at their very best. They understand that everyone is different and they are always curious about what makes their people tick. The poorest managers assume that everyone needs the same things that they do and therefore they treat them accordingly.

Conclusion

Managing conflict in teams is not an exact science and the consequences of getting it wrong can be painful and expensive. On the other hand, the benefits that comes from investing a little time and effort in understanding peoples underlying needs and then meeting those needs in tandem with those of the business can create amazing results and provide huge personal satisfaction.

Gavin Meikle is the owner of inter-activ learning and development, a Southampton based consultancy specialising in effective face to face interpersonal communication and presentations. He can be contacted at gmeikle@inter-activ.co.uk or by phone on 07810 645309

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