Expert interview: The keys to conflict prevention
If you read my previous article about the things you should do before firing an employee, then you may remember the advice from Emma del Torto: Just because two people see the world different, it doesn’t mean they can’t work together.
I’ve been thinking about this line a lot, because I think it’s a really important lesson. I wanted to learn more about how you can help different employees get along with each other. And so, I called Simon Kilpatrick, business psychologist with Intrinsic Links, for a chat.
Start by admitting that not everybody is destined to get along
“Not everybody at work is going to get along” Simon told me. “Some people will click, others won’t. But whether it’s because of a simple misunderstanding, or a full-blown personality clash, it can have a negative impact on productivity – both at an individual level, and sometimes even a team or company level.”
As you probably know, a personality clash that gets out of hand can lead to all sorts of consequences. When two people don’t get along, it can lead to stress, absence, disciplinary hearings and even dismissals.
But Simon says that while there’s no secret formula for making everybody magically click, there are lots of ways to prevent clashes from getting out of hand.
All personality types have the ability to work well together
First, unblock your mind. Never assume that two people can never ever get along with each other. All personality types have the potential to work well together – even if they seem like polar opposites. Simon says that there is no such thing as an incompatible pair of personalities. And while some pairings require a little more patience, their strengths can always complement each other.
“People just need to learn how their colleagues tick, and try to be adaptable” Simon explains. “Person A might not realise that their direct style of talking offends Person B. And Person B might not realise that Person A means no offence.”
Simon recommends encouraging all employees to undertake a personality profile, which they should then share with their team members. This will help employees to build self-awareness, as well as team-awareness. It will help each individual understand their own strengths, as well as their colleagues’ strengths.
Prevention is better than the cure – train your managers to pre-empt conflict
Rather than waiting for two employees to start throwing fists, Simon says it’s far better to train your managers how to spot conflict before it hits boiling point.
“It’s about how well your managers know their team” Simon explains. “If you know your people well, you can quickly spot the early signs of conflict, then nip it in the bud. For example, sarcasm might be part of one employee’s everyday language. But for another, it could be sign that they’re getting fed up with something. Of course, occasionally, somebody might simply be in a bad mood – again, this comes down to how well you know your people.”
If your managers don’t know their team members very well, then again, personality profiling is a great place to start. You should also prompt managers to improve their emotional intelligence. But ultimately, you should work towards a good, strong culture where people speak to each other openly and often.
Address problems early instead of letting them build up
It’s easy to ignore the early signs of a conflict. It’s easy to think – rather, to hope – that it will just blow over. And occasionally it will. But if you hide from these small cues, then you’re giving them chance to escalate. And you’ll likely lose respect.
“A good style of management should involve relaxed, on-going mediation” says Simon. “If you notice something bubbling, there’s no need to flip your lid or start a confrontation. It’s far more effective to have a private, informal chat, remaining sensitive to each person’s feelings. Subtlety is important here, so don’t make a song and dance out of it – you don’t want your employees to feel like you are putting them under the spotlight.”
Of course, where problems have gained a little more traction, then you might wish to hold a slightly more formal group meeting. Again, Simon says this doesn’t need to be a ‘telling off’ – it can just be a more structured form of on-going mediation, designed to help two people understand each other’s unique strengths and differences.
Don’t look back in anger
You can’t always stop conflict from turning nasty. But when it does, Simon says that the worst thing you can do, is reflect the negative behaviour.
“If you meet conflict with conflict, you’re only adding fuel to the fire” he explains. “You need to handle the situation with sensitivity, keeping in mind the needs of other team members – who are looking up to their leader for a strong example. They will feel the impact of the conflict more if their leader begins to reinforce the anger and negativity. As a smart colleague of mine once said, ‘tread heavy ground lightly’.”
Yes, you’ll sometimes need to take more firm action. You may need to hold formal meetings that you carefully record, with a member of HR present. But this should be kept away from the frontline, if you want to prevent the conflict from spreading to other perfectly healthy working relationships elsewhere in your team.
About Simon Kilpatrick
Simon is the founder of Instrinsic Links – a team of psychologists who teach positive psychology and management techniques. Intrinsic Links was built to help companies develop great teams and top performers. You can learn more by visiting their website: www.intrinsiclinks.com
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