Viewpoints

Turning conflicts into solutions

By Raquelle Solon


In today’s workforce, diversity among age, gender and culture provides opportunities for new ideas, opinions and expertise, but it also can cause problems when discussions cross a line. Opposing views on cultural and social issues can escalate quickly and conversations may even become hostile. This emotional stress affects employees’ collaboration, relationships and productivity. To mitigate the risk of conflict, city and county administrators and their HR departments should take preventative steps by setting the tone for appropriate work behavior and implementing policies and processes for conflict resolution.

A conflict is a fight, clash or disagreement that occurs when mismatched goals are held simultaneously. Conflicts can stem from issues including miscommunication, misperception, unmet needs and unconscious bias. Fear of perceived negative emotions or outcomes leads to a belief that all conflict is bad. When handled correctly, however, good conflict can be a catalyst for positive change and enhance relationships between co-workers.


Setting the tone

From small town halls to big city civic centers, every municipality should offer a welcoming environment where all employees feel safe and included. By modeling respectful behaviors, employers set a diplomatic and non-confrontational tone for workplace expectations of employees and peers. To help communicate expectations, employers can offer ethics training to reinforce the organization’s expectations and standards of conduct. Additionally, establishing inclusiveness as a core value of the community helps normalize diversity and puts human faces to potentially faceless, abstract ideas such as different cultural standards.


Conflict communication

As communication is the critical element in resolving conflict, three principles emerge: managing thoughts and feelings, overall communication and listening. Feelings become the barometer by which temperatures can be escalated or de-escalated. In order to de-escalate the situation, personal feelings must be in check so the focus is on the goal and not the individual.

In the heat of an argument, it’s easy to say something we’ll regret later. Suggest employees take a few moments to collect their thoughts before saying anything. Once employees have calmed down, encourage them to improve communication skills by using “I” statements, conveying their intentions, practicing assertive communication and monitoring their voices to remain composed while presenting statements. Try to be as straightforward as possible to get to the root of the real problem.

To show equal respect, managers also can improve their listening skills. Maintain eye contact throughout the conversation to show an investment in what an employee has to say. Summarize what is heard to ensure everyone is on the same page, and ask open-ended questions to clarify any points. Actively listen to provide further investment in the conversation as well as a willingness to hear the other person’s thoughts and come to a solution.


Policies and processes

Don’t wait for a workplace conflict to arise. Proactively develop conflict resolution policies and processes to effectively de-escalate the situation. These policies and processes encourage employees to report incidents and create a sense of safety for representatives in the field and employees in the workplace.

Employers should organize a diverse structure of managers, department heads and human resource representatives to develop policies and ensure conflicts are handled properly. Conduct regular re-evaluation of the processes to certify that they match the current social state and are confidential, transparent and inclusive. Refer back to Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) guidelines to warrant a safe workplace for employees at all levels. In addition, seek out a third party expert to provide your staff with conflict resolution training that reinforces company policy.

Working through an issue allows co-workers to improve relationships and enhance job performance by eliminating future disagreements. Brainstorming solutions helps gain insight from all parties involved, offer new ideas and lead to a compromise that creates a harmonious workplace. Through proper policies and clear communication, conflicts can be resolved and interoffice relationships made stronger. Well-managed conflict provides the opportunity to clarify issues and gain new insights.

 

Raquelle Solon is a business solutions engineer for FEI Behavioral Health in Milwaukee. She is responsible for helping organizations determine and implement holistic crisis management systems, organizational development and workplace violence prevention strategies. She also is responsible for the direct delivery of workplace violence prevention, leadership development, employee assistance and crisis management trainings. Solon was named “Woman of the Year” for 2012-2013 by the National Association of Professional Women.

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It features the Editor's Viewpoints and contributed commentaries.

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Derek Prall

Derek Prall is a professional journalist who has held numerous positions with a variety of print and online publications including The Public Manager magazine and the New Jersey Herald. He is a 2008...

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