Conflict management helps reduce stress

Question posed: A co-worker and I have jobs that rely on each other for success, yet we can’t seem to work together. We either trip over each other doing the same task, or think the other person is doing it and it falls undone between us. What needs to change?

Answer: Let’s say you divvy up the tasks exactly fairly and make a detailed list of who does what and when. If the issue is “we can’t seem to work together” then a list, however detailed, won’t solve the problem. Here are some suggestions for a successful working relationship:Clearly understanding roles and goals greatly contributes to stress management in many situations, whether in a family or an organization. Uncertainty is stressful and becomes blame, confusion about who does what, and feeling what work you do is unappreciated. I’ve had many cases where employees had such different ideas of what each one’s role was, that their goals were constantly clashing. By the time I intervened, one goal was to find a way to get rid of the other employee, while the other’s goal was to undermine the co-worker whenever possible. They were both very stressed and mistrustful.

My approach was to ask opened-ended questions. We reframed the underlying conflict as reopening communication about the causes of their strife, using four topics:

1.Determine the reason for having a goal.

In this case, it didn’t take long to discover that the reasons for their two differing goals made sense to them. They’d been tripping over each other because of unclear roles and expectations.

The reason for a goal is fundamental, before even setting the goal. If the reason is to meet a target, such as sales, then setting the goal might have quantitative questions: how much, what size, which territory, who is responsible etc. If the reason for the goal is to support someone’s personal growth and development, the questions might be more qualitative: what feelings, whose perspectives, when in time, is it in the job description etc.

Once the two employees agreed on the reason to share a goal -in this case it was their mutual success – they could agree the goal was to improve their working relationship. Only then did we discuss the hurtful things they’d done and said to each other, and how to move forward together.

2. Discover the nature of the relationship between the people involved in setting the goal.

Power played a big part of their mistrust and enmity. One employee had lots and wielded it in ways he thought appropriate to get the work done; the other employee felt abused. When that was on the table, the employees could commit to working in the clarified job duties without needing to be whipped to do it.

The context for the goal setting influences the process. Is there a power differential that might set of tone of the more powerful person dictating goals to the less powerful person? Is the relationship so strained that the people involved might never be able to agree on who has what role or responsibility? Is it peers who are collectively setting a team goal that all will be asked to meet? Who else has power that may be skewing how the two employees interact with each other? For example, is the conflict because they are each trying to impress someone who is not part of their described problem?

3. Delve into how empowered the people involved believe they are.

The company shared some of the responsibility for the conflict because it didn’t have clear job descriptions or expect regular performance evaluations. In other words, both employees felt abandoned in trying to do a good job. They became more obliging when it was apparent there were opportunities for both to grow in their jobs.

If neither employee feels empowered to do the job, neither engages well with the work. That leads to judging, criticism, complaining and escalating conflict. If someone else needs to get involved to help empower the employees do their job, the question becomes how the two approach that other person for help.

4. Develop a clear intention

One of the outcomes both were particularly happy about was the decision to meet more regularly to discuss their shared goals and set new expectations. They each wanted more structured goal setting and mutual support.

If you intend to set achievable goals, have an understanding of the power dynamic and options for how to frame the conversation. Some questions to ask yourself before going into the goal setting meeting might be: what assumptions do I have about the reasons, goals and employee; are those assumptions skewing my intention; if I change those assumptions do the intentions change? Do my beliefs about intentions change with my assumptions? What might the perspective of the other person about my work be? What intentions might we share in common?

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