Workplace conflicts can sap energy from any small business. Whether it involves employees, vendors or contractors, getting such issues resolved is critical to smooth sailing. Business managers overall spend an estimated 40 percent of their time dealing with conflicts both big and small.
That’s just normal, since disagreements, disputes and honest differences exist everywhere. For small business owners and entrepreneurs, the key is this: By treating conflicts as catalysts for increasing energy and productivity, you can turn them from negatives into positives. Here are five ways to make workplace conflicts constructive:
1. Don’t be a mediator. Many small business owners and managers try to be neutral party mediators in workplace conflicts when in fact that’s not their role. Your obligation is to the interests of the business and others who work there, and you need a combination of skills, structure and finesse to express (and impose) your own view on how things need to be.
2. Open with an icebreaker: Most people are ready to complain, debate or argue at the outset of any conflict. They’ve conjured up their best arguments and are ready for battle. For best results, don’t go straight to the topic of the controversy. That will only get people stuck in their positions. “You need to do something different,” says Steven Dinkin, president of the National Conflict Resolution Center, which helps teach conflict resolution skills. What you need is a way to open a conversation about difficult issues in a non-threatening way.
An icebreaker is not idle chit-chat, but a smooth transition. The ideal opener might ask for a person’s own take on something both work-related and positive. For example, if the conflict involves two workers involved in the same project, ask each of them how they became involved and what they hoped to achieve.
3. Listen closely. Sometimes what you don’t say is more important than what you do. Good outcomes come from listening carefully to others. This sends a positive message that you are genuinely concerned. And it’s simply the best way to get to the bottom of what’s really going on. “To get this going, ask an open-ended question,” says Dinkin. Then listen carefully to that person’s side of the story. Quickly re-insert yourself into the discussion if it turns negative.
4. Use and encourage positive language: Any frustrated business owners knows how easy it can be to slip into negativity after a conflict erupts. Always think before you speak. “Remember, it’s a conversation, not a trial,” says Dinkin. “If you keep the language positive, whoever you speak to will likely mirror what you’re doing. Even the needs of the business can be expressed I positive terms, which will lead to a better tone overall.” For example you can say, “This is affecting the entire business, and we need to address it so we can get everyone focused back on our goals.” When you keep things positive, you can work toward great solutions efficiently and effectively.
5. Aim for SMART conflict solutions: Your goal is not just to defuse a situation in the near term, but to come up with a sustainable answer to the problem. That requires the so-called SMART approach that has the following qualities:
- Specific: Be clear about who will do what, when, where and how.
- Measurable: Establish a way to tell that something has been done, achieved or completed.
- Achievable: Whatever solution you come up with needs to fit the situation and be doable by those involved. In short, don’t set anyone up to fail.
- Realistic: Check calendars for holidays and vacations; look at past performance to predict future actions and allow time for glitches and delays.
- Timed: Set reasonable deadlines and target dates and provide necessary tools and support to meet those targets.
And finally, “Once you have your smart solutions, quickly put them in writing,” says Dinkin. “It’s the best way to keep people’s memories in line with what everyone agreed on.”
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