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Resolving conflict at work

Saumya Bhattacharya     October 9, 2010

Last year when Yahoo! India was about to roll out a "Work from Home" policy, there were dissenting voices. It was first announced for mid-level managers, some of whom felt it was too strict, while others thought it was too lenient.

The initial discussion in an open forum wasn't too productive. The company's senior management met the managers in small groups, and reworked the policy based on their feedback. "Their willingness to give feedback combined with the leadership team's willingness to incorporate it, defused a potentially painful top-down implementation of a policy that would have resulted in conflict," says Aparna Ballakur, Vice President of Human Resources at Yahoo! India.

While this was a conflict that could affect an entire organisation, on a smaller scale, friction can and does occur between two employees, between an employee and a manager, or among team members. N.S. Rajan, Partner and National Head of People & Organisation at Ernst & Young, puts conflicts in two buckets: one arising from poor leadership and the other surfacing when value systems of individuals differ. For instance, if the organisation has not spelt out a clear work matrix or a transparent reward system, the HR value chain suffers.

"If people are stepping on each other's toes when carrying out their work and that's happening because there is no clear work matrix, conflicts are unavoidable," adds Rajan. However, when goals and matrix are clearly defined, what's left is valuebased conflicts that, again, have the potential to turn into big problems.

Sure, there is no one-size-fits-all solution, but what definitely does not work is not addressing the problem. Conflicts are inevitable and differences of opinion are a natural part of a workplace, especially in innovative environments. "Differences of opinion can scale into an unhealthy conflict situation when it spills over from the issue being discussed into egos and personalities," says Ballakur.

Invariably in such situations, the price of inaction - both on the part of the organisation and the individual - is high. Teams go through spells of low productivity during conflicts because of stress. And if a conflict is allowed to linger, most workers involved end up being angry and upset - not just with the co-worker giving them stress, but also with the organisation for not dealing with the situation. Worse, it can make an employee feel discriminated against.

Talent experts like Sriram Rajagopal, VP of HR at Cognizant, the IT services and consulting company, say that "it is naive to look the other way and expect conflicts to resolve on their own".

Even trivial matters can snowball into big conflicts. What can a seemingly small issue like a noisy colleague do to your team? It can cause a lot of stress if not dealt with properly. Ballakur cites the example of an employee who complained that the people who sat around him were very noisy and this disturbed his concentration. "We asked him if he had told the people that their noisiness disturbed him. He had not," she says.

The company then called the employee and others in a room and made them talk about the issue. It turned out that the co-workers had not realised that their noise was bothering him. In the end, this was amicably resolved with a fairly short discussion.

But the same situation can get tricky if not dealt with maturity. Amit, who works in a retail set-up, had difficulty concentrating, thanks to the constant babble of two of his colleagues. When he tried to speak to them, they did not take him seriously.

He spoke to the manager who assured him that he will be shifted to a quieter place. In a couple of weeks, his seat was changed. But he says: "I wish somebody had told them that my work was suffering. I am relieved that my seat was moved, but these guys are continuing with their behaviour." He did not want his full name or the name of his employer taken.

Experts say that conflicts arise when there isn't enough communication from the management about the organisation's goals and how they want individuals to get there. At AkzoNobel, the world's leading paints company that acquired ICI India in 2008, informal communication with the employees has helped in the transition and ironed out many potential conflicts. Says Heiko Hutmacher, Senior VP of HR at AkzoNobel: "You have to take time out. Communication helps and informal communication helps better."

At Cognizant, employees have several channels for real and virtual interaction that help them voice concerns before they escalate into conflicts. These include staff meetings, internal newsletters, bulletin boards, corporate intranet and organisational e-mails, among others.

When employees see others around them voicing their opinion and how these are channelised effectively, it encourages them to voice their opinion as well. "Like great ideas, an environment of managed conflict is built on word of mouth," says Ballakur.

However, some reasons behind these conflicts are so entrenched that they cannot be resolved by the participants alone and need mediation. A few months ago, in one of the teams at Cognizant, members just could not get along with a new manager. The manager was "highly unapproachable and indifferent", the team told people managers in the company. On his part, the manager continued to make key decisions because he assumed the problem lay with getting accepted in the new organisation.

The distance widened to a point where the manager started setting ever more aggressive deadlines to assert his hold over the team, and although the team members worked hard initially, at times even over the weekends, after a while they started defying his deadlines. The new manager, meanwhile, had earned the confidence of the customers with his quick grasp of their requirements and speedy execution, but his team was in disarray.

The company's HR team then convened a meeting. It started with both the manager and the team members relating their sides of the story. The team realised that the manager appeared aloof and unilateral not because he wanted to be that way, but because they hadn't shown enough acceptance of him into the system.

The manager realised that he hadn't made enough effort to involve the team members and was, therefore, disliked. Just the articulation of these feelings thawed the ice between the two sides. Thereafter, the manager focused on changing his approach and also agreed to take training to enhance his behavioural skills. "Today, the same team reports a much healthier flow of ideas and suggestions," says Rajagopal.

Is a Colleague Causing You Stress?

  • Handle the conflict at the earliest. Don't wait for it to blow over
  • Have a chat with the person who is upsetting you with bad behaviour
  • Focus on the immediate issue. Avoid personal attacks
  • Be nice. Being assertive does not mean being aggressive
  • Be a good listener. Ask why that person did or said a particular thing
  • Convey your discomfort over the issue, but be willing to be flexible
  • Never take bullying or unacceptable behaviour from anyone
  • If the problem persists, get mediation from your manager and seniors

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