8 Ways to Reduce and Avoid Office Tension

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Remember when your Project Manager came in the conference room last month, his forehead pulsating, as if he were just itching for a fight of any kind?  We’ve all had those people in our office, reminding us of the great scene from Monty Python – “The Argument Clinic.”

Maybe there is pressure from higher up to get results, or perhaps it is just the result of contrasting personalities being forced to work together.  In reality, it doesn’t matter – people are people and conflict in the workplace is nonetheless inevitable.

Causes of Conflict in the Office

Why does conflict exist? Pretty simple, really. It’s the result of a difference of priorities, beliefs or goals.  People have different motivations and incentives, driving them to push one agenda or another.  This is not to say that such agendas are malicious.  Rather, it simply means that specific agendas can interfere.  For example, a production manager may wish to build product ahead of schedule to make sure her deliveries are on time, but a supply chain manager will want to minimize such actions, to reduce the amount of inventory on hand at any given time.

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It goes without saying that not all conflict is bad. In fact, conflict can be good provided it results in constructive progress towards the common mission.  While our production manager and supply chain manager have different motivations and goals, by working together, they can strike harmony that is best for the organization.

But most of us, when thinking about conflict in the workplace, do not think of balancing our goals and striking harmony.  Rather, we think of the intense shouting matches that percolate to the surface from time to time.  This kind of conflict in the office is uncomfortable and frustrating when it’s a regular occurrence.  More importantly, deep and rampant conflict is counterproductive.

Every manager, no matter what his or her experience level, will encounter conflict in the office on a regular basis.  And effectively working through it is tough for anyone.  So as a primer, here are 7 ways to avoid and resolve office drama:

1. Remain Professional.  Always.

Let’s face it: the best way to handle conflict in the work place is to try to avoid it altogether.  When it comes to conflict in the office, always take a step back and think bigger. Ultimately, when you head home from a hard day’s work, you are going home to be with your family, spend time with friends or do whatever it is you like to do. The same is true for everyone else in your office.  While it is important to do a quality job and to take your job seriously, it should not drive you to let things get personal. Ever. Why?  You have to come back in the next day and work with those same people. Keep things professional, don’t let it get personal.  Not only should you live to this standard as the manager, but you should also impose such a policy on your employees.

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2. Don’t Let it Escalate

Few work place conflicts between teams or people are sudden and unexpected. Almost all office tension is built over some period of time and has some sort of history.  For example, you may often see your manufacturing supervisor get into an argument with your production scheduler, who always seems to issue production orders too late.  As a result, you have grown to expect some sort of tempered debate every time they are in the same room.

When you start to see a conflict and tension take hold, intervene quickly to help drive the conversation into constructive territory to avoid a situation where personal attacks are possible. Mediate, balance, and diffuse.  Again, don’t let it get personal. If it does, it will only more quickly unravel the next time.

3. Start Off with Ground Rules

Particularly if there has been a history of discord or tempered dialog among a certain group of people, kick off the conversation by setting ground rules.  By establishing ground rules, you are leveling the playing field for everyone, regardless of position or rank within the organization. Moreover, you clearly define the expected behavior of each participant.

Examples of meeting ground rules can include:

1.  “All ideas are worthy and will be evaluated for its Pros and Cons.”

2.  “One person speaks at a time.”

3.  “Every person must participate.”

4.  “No decisions will be made until all opinions are heard.”

5.  “We will parking lot larger issues for a separate discussion.” (See #4)

6.  “Context of this discussion is specifically related to X (X being the topic of key area

of discussion; other adjacent topics are not to be discussed or introduced).”

7.  “Meeting adjourns only when all participants will agree to the final plan of action.”

4. Create a Parking Lot

There are some topics that you know will create controversy among a given audience.  In some cases, we might even refer to these topics as landmines.  If you call a meeting to gain alignment with the team on whether or not more testing of a new product is required, but you know there are strong opinions as to the way the testing is being funded, be prepared to manage that part of the conversation.  A good way to approach it is to let the debate over funding begin so that it clearly emerges as a disruptive part of the conversation, but then quickly put it off to the side in the parking lot.

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A “parking lot” is a tool for separating other issues that clog a conversation or agenda item.  Write down non-essential topics that come up in a meeting on a flip chart in the side of the room, or have the meeting scribe make special note of the adjacent topic.  Creating the parking lot and putting non-essential topics off to the side helps keep those issues out of a specific conversation, lessening the chance for conflict.

5. “Take Five”

“Take Five” is not just a famous jazz song written by the great Dave Brubeck.  Sometimes, an intense argument or dispute simply cannot be avoided. We’ve all been there. We were either in the debate ourselves, or were witness to it, only wishing to crawl away to a safe zone. Depending on the circumstances, consider making the team take a 5 minute break to let people settle down and bring the conversation back into the constructive arena.  Plus, by letting people cool down they are more likely to come back to the table ready to work it out and move on.

6. “It’s Not You, It’s Me”

When it comes to managing conflict in the workplace, sometimes you need to be the voice of reason.  If you find yourself stuck in a circular debate and can’t help but think “Ok, just drop it and let’s move on” don’t be afraid to take the high road.  Step up and take an action to follow-up on the topic at hand so that the team can move on.  Take the initiative to set up a discussion to revisit the topic at a later date.

7. Bring in Lunch

The best way to reduce office tension is to create an environment where people can put their guard down, talk about something else, and simply relax.  You can do this by taking a 5 minute break to let people separate and cool down as discussed in #5 above.  Or, you can force people to come together.  A meal is a great way to do this.  To  break up the discussion and the tension, bring in a meal and deliberately let people socialize.  You will be amazed how spending 30 minutes sharing a meal and talking about the weekend helps people begin to forge a relationship and push aside issues.

8. Humor

Perhaps it is counter-intuitive, but using tactful humor in a tense setting is a great way to reduce the overall tension and lighten up the conversation. This is not to say that you should tell a joke in the middle of every serious discussion, but it is worth poking a little fun at the situation or using a little sarcasm to help settle people down.  For example, you might say “How about we take all the circuit boards we had to recall and give one to each employee as their holiday gift.”  Remember you and everyone else is there to do a job.  While there can certainly be high stakes situations, offering up a little humor from time to time can quickly diffuse uncomfortable tension, and ensure keep people on task.

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So there you have it.  When you find yourself in, or witness to an passionate argument or debate, always be sure to focus on the task and the job, not the people. Don’t let conflict become personal for yourself, or others.

Looking for More?  How to Deal with the Office Scrooge

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