3 Practical Ways to Cut Conflict Even If You Don’t Know the Source

Are you experiencing more conflict at work now than you did pre-Covid? In several recent podcast interviews, I’ve been asked about the so-called “rise in workplace conflict,” and there are certainly several reasons why that this could be a real thing. 

More remote and hybrid work creates an opportunity for confusion and lack of clarity. There’s less chance to work together and figure things out serendipitously when you’re not all in the same place. And having to commute again—and no longer having time for workouts, hobbies, or caregiving responsibilities—can certainly make employees feel pressured and cranky. 

Although time pressures and lack of leeway in the workplace existed before Covid, the pandemic taught us that we could get our jobs done and still have time to take care of our own needs. Not surprisingly, returning to work-related routines from the past, like commuting and dealing with office politics, can feel like losing control over your own life. And when employers tighten up work rules like initiating keystroke monitoring and reinstating requirements for scheduling time off, the potential for resentments and misunderstandings among employees multiplies. 

It’s possible that people fell out of the habit of suppressing some of their inner reactivity because even on the job, they got used to feeling more like their true selves during Covid isolation. Plus, as Gen Z penetrates the workplace, without having had decades of workplace indoctrination and habit-building, their natural behavior may not fit the expectations of workers from older generations.

Identify and Address Sources of Conflict

If you’d like to get to the bottom of what’s creating conflict in your workplace, you can watch my TEDx talk, Why There’s So Much Conflict at Work and What You Can Do to Fix It. But if that process feels too complex or time-consuming, here are three areas to consider right away if you believe you’re seeing more conflict than you used to. 

Assess the level of the conflict. Does the conflict involve two people or two departments—or is it even bigger? Leaders often don’t care much about who’s mad at whom. But if there’s a lack of progress and crucial initiatives are stalling, leaders should actively try to determine whether the problem is behavioral. Are people simply being icky toward each other, or are underlying structures like software or performance requirements pitting employees against each other?

Get everyone on the same page. What is your organization trying to accomplish and what are the acceptable ways to go about it? Reestablishing clarity about both goals and values is necessary at every hierarchical level and across all functions. Whether executives make sweeping statements about their intentions or there’s a plaque on the wall memorializing an organization’s mission or vision, most people’s day-to-day actions are based on everyone else’s behavior around them. Making straightforward declarations about what the organization is trying to accomplish and how you plan to get that done can create a basis for people to find ways to work together, even when they don’t see eye-to-eye.

Ask for commitment. Be overt about asking people for their buy-in, regardless of historical problems. If you acknowledge what went wrong or where negative impacts occurred, and then declare how things are going to change or how you’re going to behave differently, it’s legit to ask others if they’re willing to sign up to face the future with you. When people are willing to say, “Yes, I’ll be on your team for this,” they’re likely to perform better, think more comprehensively, and come up with alternative approaches rather than just churn out specific tasks and expect others to do the same.

Make Improved Collaboration Your Goal

By doing these three things, you’re setting the stage for more effective collaboration, which makes it more likely that you’ll be able to create the kind of progress your initiative has been lacking. As everyone sees what they can achieve by working together, many small irritations may have less impact. On the other hand, even though people might feel better about working together, structural impediments may become obvious, and it will be necessary to identify ways to deal with those.

But whenever you can infuse people with the spirit of collaboration, their goodwill can make it easier to figure out what truly isn’t working and which experiments or tests you can run to find better ways. And then, everyone benefits.

Onward and upward—

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