They appear in all walks of life, but probably a bit more in the construction trades than elsewhere because, heck, yours is an industry celebrated for its tough, macho image. An almost-palpable swagger can be detected on construction jobsites testifying to the hard work and hazardous conditions people endure for a paycheck. And doesn’t it seem like most construction foremen would make great drill sergeants?
Problem is, gruff techniques don’t work so well with a modern, PC-indoctrinated work force. And especially not with skilled craft workers, or on jobsites that increasingly may include a woman or two. So take a little quiz to find out if you – uh, we mean perhaps other persons in your organization – might be causing conflict with customers, employees or management on a regular basis. Answer the following yes or no.
1. You’ve worked damned hard your entire life to get to the position of authority you now hold so dear, so it’s “my way or the highway.”
2. You seldom get feedback from others about business issues of importance.
3. You’re the only one in your organization who really knows what’s going on.
4. Sometimes it’s more difficult or costs you time and money to do things your way, but because of #3, it’s well worth it.
5. You’re not getting the results you hoped for, but it’s not your fault.
Recognize any of these self-realizations? If you answered yes to any of them, and especially if you answered yes to more than one, it might be time for some soul-searching.
Conflict ResolutionConflicts routinely arise in businesses large and small, between supervisors and subordinates or between co-workers. Some business management studies have shown that managers spend as much as 60 percent of their time resolving conflicts. Moreover, bickering can get out of hand to the point where co-workers are reluctant to communicate. They may withhold information needed for a smoothly running job, or, even worse, tensions can get to the point where one party deliberately or subconsciously does things that will sabotage another’s performance.
Years ago, I attended a labor-relations conference where a union business manager and executive director of a mechanical contractors association jointly told of having so much animosity toward each other that they underwent third-party conflict resolution counseling so they could do necessary business together. The counseling helped forge a relationship so amicable they felt comfortable getting up together in front of an audience to discuss their past problems. I was impressed.
So I did some research on this subject, and was able to extract some insights and pointers that might be relevant to your business.
One of the most important concepts that all the texts seem to mention is that conflict in itself is natural and not necessarily bad. If conflict never arises in your company, it means either: 1. You have the nicest people in the world working for you; or, more likely, 2. They are a bunch of passive drones who don’t care enough about their work to complain when something doesn’t go right. What counts is how conflict gets handled.
Stripped of academic jargon, conflict resolution boils down to communication and seeing things from the other party’s point of view. Most resolutions come about from talking things through – or when, like an alcoholic admitting his problem, an overbearing SOB realizes the error of his/her ways and resolves to change.
When You Are in ConflictIn cases where you are a party to the conflict, here are some steps you can take to reach resolution.
1.Treat the other party with respect. This can be a challenge, especially when personal animosity does exist. If that’s the case, ask yourself whether the conflict is really about a business-related issue or something personal. If it’s genuinely about business, then use willpower to keep things businesslike. Sensible people can disagree without being disagreeable.
2.Confront the problem.Find a mutually agreeable time and place to discuss the problem with the other person. The time should be when you’re fresh, and have had a chance to calm down. The place should be a setting comfortable for both, away from each other’s office or “turf.”
3.Define the conflict. Be specific with who, what, where, when and why? Describe behaviors, feelings, consequences and desired changes. Define the conflict as a problem for both of you to solve, not as a battle to be won.
4.Listen. Force yourself to try to understand the other party’s position. Encourage the other person to do the same with yours.
All the conflict resolution experts emphasize the importance of being a good listener, whether you are involved in the conflict or a mediator. When you really think about it, most conflicts arise when two people spurt out their thoughts and feelings as if they were the only ones that count. Sympathetic listening could stop most conflicts even before they begin.
5.Communicate. You listen to understand. Afterward it’s time to be understood. Step back, and try to imagine how the other person sees things. Then, based on the understanding you’ve gained through listening, start talking about ways to resolve the dispute. In particular, discuss any changes in the way you see things or how you feel. Try to get an exchange going in which both of you offer potential solutions. Instead of rejecting the other side’s position out of hand, discuss the consequences of each proposal in a rational way, pointing out the pros and cons.
6.Get to win-win. Agree to a solution both of you understand and can live with. Make a provision to discuss things again if the solution does not appear to be working.
When You Are a MediatorHere are some techniques that might help you resolve conflict between other parties when you are not involved directly. This is especially relevant to supervisors trying to make peace between squabbling subordinates.
1.Create a cordial atmosphere. Choose a time and place (neutral turf) that suits all parties involved. Avoid tight schedules when one side or the other might feel pressed to move on. Compose an opening statement aimed at establishing trust and confidentiality.
2.Define the conflict. Same as if you were a party to it, except it is up to you to make sure both sides lay their cards on the table. Sort them out, and clarify out loud what you see as the heart of the conflict. Get both sides to agree before proceeding. Get to the heart of the matter and avoid side issues.
In particular, avoid dredging up the past. Stay in the present, and don’t let the parties get sidetracked with grudges from past events. Many disputes have their roots in the past, and this may come out in the course of the discussion.
3.Listen. Being a good listener is just as important, if not more so, when you are a mediator as when you are one of the aggrieved parties. Don’t assume you know what’s really bugging the people in conflict. Listen for clues about unspoken issues.
For example, long ago I worked in an office with a man who had the annoying habit of clucking his tongue throughout the day. This irritated everyone who worked around him, but nobody had the nerve to confront him about it. Instead, co-workers complained to their supervisor about his work, which really was no worse than anyone else’s. Even though I found the guy as annoying as everyone else did, I thought it unfair to bring his performance into question. It was an early lesson in organizational behavior. People don’t always mean what they say.
4.Emphasize the team. Stress that their respective differences are hurting the ability of the organization to function, which hurts everyone’s ability to earn a living. Try to get them to understand that, even if they don’t like each other, it’s in both of their interests to cooperate for the good of the company.
5.Generate options. Ask the parties in conflict to suggest solutions. Write them down, no matter how silly they may sound. But don’t start discussing them until all ideas are on the table. Narrow down the list as quickly as possible until you get two or three seemingly workable solutions that might be acceptable to both sides.
Ideally, it would be a solution cobbled together from suggestions made by each party. That way, each could be made to feel that he “got his way.” Be prepared to offer suggestions of your own if their solutions prove unacceptable.
6.Get to WIN-win-win. As a mediator, your obligation is not only to the persons in conflict, but to the company as a whole. Whatever solution you come up with must satisfy the company’s needs first. If it makes them happy, too, so much the better.
As a last resort, you might consider bringing in a conflict-resolution expert as a facilitator. This could be helpful when the business disruption is great, when a supervisor is involved or unable to resolve the conflict, and when all parties are too valuable to dismiss. A specific situation where this might be desirable is when a particularly important project might be coming up and you can’t afford animosities to jeopardize jobsite performance.