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A Better Way To Manage Conflicts In The Workplace

Workplace disputes and conflicts are an inevitable fact of life for most managers. When not managed well, disputes can quickly sap morale, impact productivity and even lead to bigger conflicts. Yet many business leaders think they are expert negotiators because they have had a lot of practice at it. But negotiating a lot is not the same as negotiating well.

Some managers view the key to being a good negotiator simply as the ability to defend your own interests and wear the other side down until a “win” is achieved (usually in the form of forcing their opponent to accept something of lesser value.) But when negotiations are combative – predicated on win-lose rather than win-win – they frequently break down. There is a much better negotiating role model for managers to follow: that of a mediator. Mediation is more about reconciling interests than it is about defending one’s own. By applying the principles of a mediator, managers are more likely to achieve a satisfactory outcome that pleases both sides. Managers who learn how to apply a mediator’s mindset to the conflicts that arise around them will not only have better negotiation skills but will also be able to act with more neutrality. As a result, they will be more trusted to resolve disputes within their organizations.

What is the problem?

First, it is important to be aware of the common barriers that prevent satisfactory resolutions to conflict. The four big obstacles to resolving disputes in the workplace are:

Different perceptions- Each party can have a widely different on the matters under negotiation, from basic facts, to the financial costs involved, the balance of powers and the probable outcome and risks. One important element that is often perceived very differently is the question of fairness. For this reason, negotiating an outcome that seems fair to both sides can be more important than the actual result.

Cognitive biases- For example, loss aversion (people prefer avoiding losses to acquiring equivalent gains, and as such refuse to yield beyond the expectations generated), overconfidence in your own arguments and unrealistic expectations about what can be achieved, among many others.

Emotions- Anger, frustration, envy or guilt – like it or not, emotions also play a role in negotiations. Rather than ignoring them or viewing them as an embarrassing distraction, an emotionally intelligent negotiator will acknowledge their own emotional states as well as those of the other party. This will minimize their disruptive effect, while providing insights for more emotionally satisfying outcomes

Strategic barriers- Fundamentally, there are two ways of seeing a negotiation: as a simple win-lose proposition, in which one-side gains at the other´s expense; or as a win-win process whereby each party comes up with creative options in pursuit of mutual benefits. The first view sets up an automatic barrier: your only concern is to obtain the most for yourself and not to be the one who loses out. In the end, somebody ends up feeling less than satisfied with the result – assuming negotiation does not completely break down before then. Another strategic barrier may be that the interests of the negotiator and those of the person or organization that the negotiator represents are not aligned. Again, if the negotiator is pursuing personal interests that are not in the best interest of the company, the result will be unsatisfactory.

So now we know what obstacles to look out for, how can we overcome them?

Five ways to negotiate better

1. Active listening

This is vital. Simply nodding your head along won’t cut it. It means showing a real interest in what the other person is saying, and paraphrasing key points to show you have understood them. It means not interrupting, not being overly critical, not questioning the other’s arguments and not jumping in with unsolicited advice or rushing to judgement. Listening actively and empathetically makes it easier to generate trust, appreciate each other’s positions and identify shared interests.

2. Reformulation

Taking into account different points of view makes it easier to get parties to change their stances on particular issues. Here the focus is on moving people away from fixed positions and ultimatums and guiding them towards common areas of interest. This is not easy, and includes:

  • Asking questions in order to open up new avenues worth exploring
  • Redirecting negative statements, and shifting talk of problems to opportunities
  • Putting vague statements in precise terms
  • Synthesizing points in common
  • Simplifying complex arguments
  • Avoiding categorical statements
  • Instead of playing the blame game, reformulation focuses on finding solutions. It looks to the future, not the past.

3. Identifying interests

Negotiating parties are rarely willing to disclose their interests to the other side. Mediators, by virtue of their neutral position, can help tease out the interests of the parties, and then get each side to think about their interests form the other´s point of view. To do this, you have to know enough to ask, engage in the active listening mentioned above, and pursue alternative lines of inquiry. It helps if this is done in a pressure-free environment.

4. Evaluation

When participants are too close to the process, they can lose site of the big picture. For this reason, another vital skill in mediation is being able to step back and evaluate the pros and cons of reaching an agreement versus abandoning the process. By having a realistic assessment of the situation from a broader, outside perspective, participants gain a fuller appreciation of the stakes, which will help to concentrate minds on finding solutions.

5. Optimism & persistence

Optimism and persistence are two more vital traits of all mediators. Likewise a manager must maintain an optimistic outlook (easier said than done!) highlighting the progress achieved, rather than the differences still to be overcome. Managers must also keep communication channels open, be determined to reach an agreement and encourage everyone involved to adopt a similarly positive mindset.

While many companies outsource this job to an external provider (which may make sense under certain circumstances), managers who are able to do some of this work themselves may help preempt some conflicts – or at least improve relationships. Even when agreements cannot always be reached, managers as mediators will still work hard to overcome impasses and prioritize relationships based on trust, mutual understanding and common interests.

IESE Business School- Forbes 

February, 2019