Our Approach to Conflict

HR Matrix consultants are often asked to work with teams or sets of individuals when personalities seem to be clashing. These situations are often presented as incompatible personalities, differences in “style,” and communication problems.  Typically, one individual appears more reasonable or accommodating, or a better fit with the organization, while the other is seen as troublesome. However, once we begin to work with people in conflict, the task is to determine if we can discover the true cause of the discord.

One of the basics of our work is to look at individuals not as culprits, but as part of a whole system and how the system – the other elements, factors, people, and culture – contributes to the conflict. If we only look at one person’s style or behavior, then we may  be missing the real issues. Because whatever the person’s style, there are always ways in which the system contributes to the problem.

To begin with, as we know, it takes two to tango. It is very rarely one person creating a problem. Although much of the tension may circle around a single person, and their choices and behaviors may contribute greatly, they are definitely not acting alone. And, if we only address that person in the equation, we wont really solve anything. So, in order to work through conflict in groups or between individuals, the first thing to do is examine the variety of elements affecting the situation. That includes the behavior of other people, the factors impacting their work, and the roles people play.

Even after discovering the impact of other people on a conflict, a common mistake is to address the conflict as an interpersonal one. “It’s a relationship problem.” Although it may seem that two people are just not getting along (and they may indeed be behaving badly), in most cases the root of the conflict is not their personalities. More often, the root cause is often found in unclear processes, role confusion, and different approaches with respect to how they are doing their work. It is often as simple as sorting out misunderstandings, miscommunications, and lack of clarity around shared work processes, goals, and roles. With that said, doing this sorting out can be challenging. By the time our firm is called in to help with a conflict, trust has often eroded and people have become frustrated and discouraged. This gets in the way of the work they need to do together to fix their shared problems.

Working with a consultant can be a great way to sort through the trust issues that keep people from working effectively on their challenges. Those within the organization, even the most well-meaning manager or best trained HR professional, are hindered by two things:  1) They may appear to be partial: to favor one party or seem to have allegiance primarily to the company, and; 2) They are part of the ‘system’ and may not be able to see the structural issues, such as process and culture, as easily as an outsider can.  It’s true. We can see a friend’s problems and solutions more easily than our own. In the same way, having an outside consultant help us to see the problems can be very effective.

When we work with conflicts of this kind, the first order of business is to develop forums for trusting, productive conversation. It isn’t easy, and requires a commitment from the parties involved to come to the table willing to work together. Very often, that simple commitment to try again, the safety to do so without blame and repercussions, and a clear look beyond personality at the systems and behaviors they can improve, results in real conflict resolution and allows people to begin working together again.

 

 

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