Conflict 101: A Manager's Guide to Resolving Problems So Everyone Can Get Back to Work
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Conflict 101: A Manager's Guide to Resolving Problems So Everyone Can Get Back to Work


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When conflict brews at the office, it’s a manager’s job to cool things down. We all know conflict is unavoidable…especially in the workplace. Whether it’s a fight over resources, a disagreement about how to get things done, or an argument stemming from perceived differences in identities or values, it’s a manager’s role to navigate


When conflict brews at the office, it’s a manager’s job to cool things down. We all know conflict is unavoidable…especially in the workplace. Whether it’s a fight over resources, a disagreement about how to get things done, or an argument stemming from perceived differences in identities or values, it’s a manager’s role to navigate relationships, and build compromises and collaborations. Conflict 101 gives readers the tools they need to ensure not only that employees get back on track, but that disagreements breed positive results. Readers will learn how to: • Build trust • Harness negative emotions • Encourage apologies and forgiveness • Use a solution-seeking approach • Say what needs to be said Incorporating anecdotes taken from the author’s twenty years of experience as a conflict resolution professional, the book helps readers more deeply understand how conflict is created, how to respond to it, and how to manage it more effectively.

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Conflict 101

A Manager's Guide to Resolving Problems So Everyone Can Get Back to Work
By Susan H. Shearouse


Copyright © 2011 Susan H. Shearouse
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8144-1712-6

Chapter One

The Joy of Conflict

Driving along a four-lane road several years ago, I came up over a small hill. I knew this road well, had passed this way many times. This time, I noticed a major construction project under way at the gas station on the right-hand side. Workers were digging a hole right next to the road. This hole was huge. I was amazed at how deep it was. I was fascinated.

Have I mentioned the traffic light that was some fifty feet over that rise in the road? Unfortunately, I was much more interested in the size of the hole than I was in the road. Several cars were stopped at the red light just ahead. Cruising over the hill, I smacked into a car waiting there. I rammed into that car hard enough to get the attention of the car in front of the car that I had rear-ended. Pretty soon we were all milling around the cars, inspecting the damage.

In that moment, everybody noticed me. The people in the car I hit certainly noticed me. Those in the car in front of the car I hit noticed me. The cops came very quickly—they had also noticed. Later that day, my insurance company noticed.

Since then, I have gotten my car repaired and am back on the road. What I realized then was how many cars I do not hit, and that nobody noticed. No one has ever gotten out of a car to come around and thank me for bringing my car to a complete stop before making contact with the rear bumper in front of me.

And so it is with us all. Throughout most of our days we successfully navigate differences, find solutions, and accommodate others' needs, building compromises and collaborations along the way. When it comes to resolving all of these conflicts, nobody notices. Our skills are taken for granted.

What everyone notices instead are the collisions—those times when our needs and expectations clash with others' needs and expectations. Someone says something, and we are sparked to anger. Suddenly we're standing in the middle of the room, yelling at someone else. Or slamming the door and stomping out of the room. The label "conflict" is slapped on the event, and we walk away embarrassed and ashamed. "How could I have said that to her?" "Why didn't I just let that go?" We turn these moments over and over in our heads, feeling lousy about who we are and what we have done and because of how we reacted.

Conflict Defined

Managers deal with conflict all the time. As leader of a group, the manager's job is to understand the mission of the workgroup—how it supports the mission of the organization—to articulate that mission to staff and to others inside and outside the organization, and to support staff in accomplishing that mission. Providing that support frequently involves resolving differences and disagreements with staff. Often we don't label this "conflict resolution" because we listen, respond, and resolve differences in the workplace before those differences kick up enough emotional dust to be visible. What, then, do we mean by the word conflict? Most dictionaries define conflict as the competitive or opposing action of incompatibles. In other words, conflict is when what you want, need, or expect interferes with what I want, need, or expect. It may be a disagreement over data or processes (how things get done); or it may be over resources (where the money and staff will come from to do the job); or it may be about relationships or our identities or values.

With this definition, we can consider the various levels of conflict, from mild disagreements, to disputes that require much time and attention, to intractable conflicts where emotions run high and relationships are broken. Resolving conflicts may be done so quietly and effectively that the moment is not remembered as a conflict. You have probably experienced this on a daily basis. Say, someone comes into your office with a question, you talk it over, agree on an answer, and sketch out a way to proceed. This is the job of management: conflict raised, conflict solved. Other conflicts become much bigger, with tempers flaring and any resolution seeming impossible. What I do in this book is help you develop an understanding of the nature of conflict and its resolution so that more of the conflicts you encounter can be resolved at the lowest possible level—in essence, to manage better.

Most of us face challenges in dealing with conflicts in our professional and personal lives. As I often tell groups I work with, I earned a life degree in conflict, as many of us do—at work, in my community, and with my family. I knew there must be a better way. In 1985, I headed back to school to get a master's degree in conflict resolution. I wanted to work "between people." I wanted to help them develop skills to address their differences, and use my own skills when they needed assistance addressing those differences. My hope was that they could more frequently walk away from a disagreement feeling relieved—and maybe surprised: "That went better than I thought it would."

Since then, most of my work has been inside organizations. A large part of my time is employed mediating and facilitating within offices, between bosses and direct reports—helping each to hear the other, so that both can find a productive, mutually acceptable way to move forward. The rest of my time is spent teaching people the skills to manage conflict more effectively themselves.

Learning to handle conflict is a lifelong journey. There will always be differences between and among us. Much of the time, most of us work our way through them effectively. We all also hit the wall on occasion. Someone says something that triggers a response and we go off. Looking back, we scratch our heads and wonder what happened. And we wonder how we can keep that from happening again. What I love about my work is that I see it as a key developmental task for all humans. There is always more to learn, a new test waiting somewhere ahead on the journey.

Conflict in the Workplace

Many people I work with were hired for their technical expertise and promoted into management positions. Sometimes the change happens overnight. The job she left on Friday afternoon is not the job she starts on Monday morning. In that shift, the nature of the work changes dramatically, from dealing with "things"—data, spreadsheets, reports—to dealing with people. Instead of doing the work herself, now she must manage people so that they get the work done. More than once I have had a new manager, who is struggling with difficulties on her staff, look at me forlornly and say, "I'd like to have my old job back, where I knew what to do, where I didn't have to deal with getting people to do the work I used to do."

Managing people requires "people skills"—new levels of communication and conflict-resolution skills. Often these new managers or supervisors have new challenges that they had not imagined before. They find themselves in the middle of conflict with direct reports. Many times what the boss wants, needs, and expects from staff is counter to what the staff wants, needs, and expects. The boss also must stand up for the people within the organization, fighting on their behalf with other business units for scarce resources, managing expectations and workload, negotiating for positions, promotions, and opportunities. And the boss also stands between co-workers who are having their own share of conflicts, aiming to harmonize differences so that people can get back to work.

Understanding conflict—how it is created, how we respond to it, and how to manage it more effectively—is what this book is about. We all, at one point or another, find it challenging to handle the differences between us. We need to recognize what is happening and why, know when to walk away and when to stand our ground, and learn how to do all of that more effectively.

The cost of conflict in the workplace is high. Some of the ways that unresolved conflict affects productivity include:

* 42 percent of a manager's time is spent addressing conflict in the workplace1 * Lost revenue from staff time is spent unproductively * Excessive employee turnover (replacement costs average 75–150 percent of annual salary) * Over 65 percent of performance problems are caused by employee conflicts * High levels of absenteeism * "Presenteeism," whereby employees are present but not productive, due to low morale * High incidence of damage and theft of inventory and equipment as a result of employee conflict * Covert sabotage of work processes and of management efforts because of employee anger

The benefits to a manager, and to a workplace, of resolving conflict effectively, at the lowest possible level, result not surprisingly in minimized costs. While statistical studies are difficult to conduct directly on the relationship between effective conflict resolution and employee satisfaction, nevertheless by improving these skills a manager can expect increased productivity, improved employee morale, and reduced turnover and absenteeism. In a study linking employee fulfillment directly to business performance, "the single biggest contributor to these feelings of fulfillment, empowerment, and satisfaction lie in the day-to-day relationship between employees and their managers."

Conflict is a broad subject; much has been written already and there is much to say. There are so many skills that managers must use throughout the day. This book is an introduction to these skills, providing tools and approaches that enable managers to deal more effectively with the conflicts they encounter.

One of the challenges for managers is differentiating: When is this question a disagreement that I need to engage others in resolving? When does this situation involve the supervisory responsibility to make decisions? There are times when making directive, unilateral decisions is appropriate for managers and supervisors. There are other times when communicating and collaborating (i.e., engaging conflict-resolution processes and skills) are essential in order to get the work done efficiently and effectively.

In this book, I talk about interpersonal conflict—when what you want, need, or expect gets in the way of what others want, need, or expect. Within an office, the wants, needs, and expectations of an individual may conflict with those of the group and its work. Often, interpersonal conflict in the workplace affects more than the two people involved. In an office I was working in recently, the supervisor and the team leader frequently had confrontations and loud disagreements. The tension between the two reverberated through the office. All of the employees became anxious about who was in charge, how decisions were being made, even what they might expect when they came to work the next day. This discomfort and distraction had a direct effect on morale and productivity.

In another office, the ongoing conflict between the manager and a staff member spilled over to the wider office as well, as the staff member spent much time badmouthing the boss. Not only was the employee's own work not getting done, but others picked up this virus of negativity and their work suffered, as well.

Understanding and managing conflict at this one-on-one level also gives the manager skills and insights to deal more effectively with larger conflicts—those involving more people. Each time you add another person to the equation, the web of interaction becomes more complex—just as individuals have their own wants, needs, and expectations within a group, so also groups become entities of their own, with their own wants, needs, and expectations that conflict with other groups. So, I start here, at this foundation, with an understanding of the dynamics between us as individuals, identifying some keys that help reduce antagonism and make it easier to resolve conflicts when they arise (and they will continue to arise, even after you have mastered all the skills in this book).

A word of encouragement: Small changes can yield big results down the road. As you read this book, identify small behavioral changes you want to make, and then make a commitment to practice them over a specific period of time, perhaps six weeks or six months. Step by step, you'll see incremental changes practiced patiently build upon each other. Later, look back at how well you have kept your commitment to change, and notice the shifts in behavior and attitude that have occurred. As I watched the launch of the Mars Exploration Rover in 2003, I thought about the difference a small shift in the thrust of the rocket would make. A few degrees in one direction or another would send the Rover into totally different directions over time. Similarly, a slight modification in your attitude and approach may well bring you closer to resolving conflicts more easily.

Drawing from My Own Experience

Jon Kabat-Zinn, in his book Wherever You Go, There You Are, reminds us that we are all learners on life's path. As conflict has been the focus of my work for twenty-some years, I bring the lessons I have learned—and continue to learn—to you.

In a wonderfully unfinished story called "Mount Analogue," René Daumal once mapped a piece of this inward adventure. The part I remember most vividly involves the rule on Mount Analogue that before you move up the mountain to your next encampment, you replenish the camp you are leaving for those who will come after you, and go down the mountain a ways to share with the other climbers your knowledge from farther up so that they may have some benefit from what you have learned so far on your own ascent. In a way, that's all any of us do when we teach. As best we can, we show others what we have seen up to now. It's at best a progress report, a map of our experiences, by no means the absolute truth. And so the adventure unfolds. We are all on Mount Analogue together. And we need each other's help.

Here, I speak with my own voice. I use examples from others, but the perspective is from my own learning and observation. I learned a lot in completing the program for my master's degree. I learned even more in confronting my own "stuff" concerning the people closest to me, who challenged so much of what I thought I knew. The people I have worked with over the years continue to teach me even more.

All that said, even with twenty years' experience as a conflict-resolution professional, when it's about my stuff I still don't walk into a conflict saying, "Oh, boy, another growth opportunity!" In the pit of my stomach is a sinking feeling, a moment of dread. I must pull together inner resources because, in fact, on the other side of this moment is the possibility of reaching a better place, of finding some improvement in the relationship or in my own understanding of myself. As you consider the stories here and apply them to your own situation, you will see that the lessons come in small moments, in tiny packages, and from seemingly insignificant events.

The stories are true—that is, they are based on disagreements, disputes, and workplace challenges I have witnessed firsthand. The names and circumstances have been altered to protect the privacy of individuals. Also, as you will see in some situations I discuss, by the time someone has called me for assistance, the conflict is nearly impossible to resolve. My hope is that this book will provide you with tools and skills that you can use to address difficult moments before they reach this point.

How We Think About Conflict

When I teach, I often start discussions with a word-association game: "When you hear the word conflict, what do you think of?" As I write the responses of the group on a flip chart in front of the class, they continue to add words, quickly filling the page. Mostly, the words are negative.

stress tension war disagreement argument miscommunication avoidance anger hostility win-lose fight battle


Excerpted from Conflict 101 by Susan H. Shearouse Copyright © 2011 by Susan H. Shearouse. Excerpted by permission of AMACOM. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

SUSAN H. SHEAROUSE has served as Executive Director of the National Conference on Peacemaking and Conflict Resolution and on the Advisory Board of the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University. Her clients have included Lockheed Martin, Philip Morris, the IRS, the US Environmental Protection Agency, the US Army Corps of Engineers, and many others.

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