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BusinessColumnistsJamie Herzlich

Address workplace conflict or it could cost you

Research from VitalSmarts estimates that employees waste 8

Research from VitalSmarts estimates that employees waste 8 to 10 hours on gossip and other unproductive activities for every unaddressed conflict in the workplace. Credit: Getty Images / Mie Ahmt

It’s not always easy to avoid conflict in the workplace.

And some conflict can be good, if it leads to new ideas or a better way of doing things.

But when it becomes counterproductive, it needs to be addressed, because ignoring it could cost you. Each avoided “crucial conversation” can cost a company about $2,000, according to research by VitalSmarts.

“One of the primary reasons people leave a company is because of some frustration that is chronic,” explains Joseph Grenny, co-founder of VitalSmarts, a Provo, Utah-based corporate consulting firm, and co-author of “Crucial Conversations” (McGraw-Hill; $20).

In fact, 95 percent of people in the workplace struggle to confront colleagues and managers about concerns and frustrations, he notes.

If left unaddressed, unresolved conflict can result in lost productivity, employee turnover and even loss of customers.

Companies need to “recognize the business case for developing a culture of candor,” in which people feel comfortable to bring up concerns if they affect their ability to do their jobs, notes Grenny.

The two biggest reasons conversations break down? The parties involved aren’t listening to each other, or they’re misinterpreting what the other person said or meant, explains Ellen Cooperperson, CEO of Cooperperson Performance Consulting in Hauppauge.

Managers need to facilitate the conversation and ask both parties, “What’s the outcome you want from this conversation?” she says. If they insist on a win-lose outcome, then the manager can say, “What’s an outcome that is a win-win for both of you?”

She suggests an exercise in which a manager has each party explain his or her perception of the issue. The other person must remain quiet and can’t interrupt or explode. When the person is done speaking, the listener must paraphrase what he or she just heard, and the speaker then says if the paraphrase is accurate, clarifying any points the speaker thinks the listener misheard, explains Cooperperson. The other party would then do the same, she notes.

This way, both parties get to listen to each other and clarify any issues, she says.

When facilitating such conversations, it’s important to set ground rules, says David G. Javitch, president of Javitch Associates, a Newton, Massachusetts-based organizational consulting firm, and an adjunct professor at the Harvard School of Public Health.

This means no yelling, screaming or name calling, and both parties walk out of the meeting agreeing on some consensus of an outcome, he notes.

If they can’t come to an agreement both sides can buy into, then make it clear as a manager that you will come to an agreement for them, which they may not want, says Javitch.

Just don’t ignore the conflict, he says. “Getting ahead of negative conflict avoids problems.”

As a manager it pays to understand the personality type of those around you, and your own, says Dan Ritchie, regional director of performance consulting at Dale Carnegie Training of Long Island in Hauppauge.

There are generally four personality types in the workplace: the “driver” (generally a decision maker/CEO who’s results-oriented and wants to make decisions quickly); the “expressor” (someone who is outgoing, visionary and big picture-oriented but not detail-oriented); the “amiable” (they’re about building friendship and trust and may need time to adjust to change); and the “analytical” (they appreciate facts and details), explains Ritchie.

If you understand each person’s personality, you can interact in a way each can relate to, avoiding conflict. So for example, an expressor talking to an analytical has to understand that person works better with decision-based facts than generalities, he explains.

“If we don’t understand who we’re talking to and the language they respond to, then we’re setting ourselves up for conflict,” says Ritchie.


8 to 10 hours: Amount of company time wasted in gossip and other unproductive activities for every unaddressed conflict

Source: Joseph Grenny, VitalSmarts

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