Welles: Looking for a good fight

Conflict at work can be surprisingly productive if managers are open about rules of engagement

The Power of a Good Fight by Lynne Eisaguirre

Most of us would much rather avoid a fight than deal with conflicts in the office, yet many managers spend more than a quarter of their time handling office conflicts. By some estimates, at least 65 percent of job performance problems result from strained relationships among employees, not from a lack of individual skills. 

Lynne Eisaguirre, author of “The Power of a Good Fight: Executive
Edition” and a workplace expert for CNN Headline News, said managers who learn to expect conflict and harness it can improve productivity and creativity. Eisaguirre’s book offers practical strategies for developing an organizational culture that fosters productive conflict.  Her point is that conflict at work is inevitable. If managers are direct about setting the rules of engagement, they can make the best use of their time in managing conflict. 

The trick, Eisaguirre said, is to turn conflict into a good fight. “Conflict is part of life,” she said. “A good fight is open, not closed or under the table. It’s about ideas, not personalities, and is most productive when people manage emotions.”
Eisaguirre said dealing with conflict productively makes staff members feel valued, and they do their best work. In the book, she compares certain office behaviors to the behaviors of pit bulls, cobras and eagles. She suggests strategies for dealing with those different types of behavior in an office conflict.

For IT people, “who by the nature of their work must be highly task-oriented and very skilled at what they do, managing conflict is essential to working collaboratively with others to get a job done,” Eisaguirre said. Collaboration requires using conflict creatively, she added.

“We need everyone’s best ideas, and we need to be able to hash out problems in a way that is productive,” she said.

Eisaguirre offers these five tips for managers who are looking for the good in a good fight:

  1. Set aside time to settle a conflict productively. “Even if we feel overwhelmed, nothing is more important than improving conflict skills,” she said.
  2. Talk about the problem or behavior, not the person or feelings. Say, for example, “I heard you say you don’t want me to yell when I give you feedback. Is that correct?” or “It sounds as if you have a new idea about how to speed up the project.”
  3. Look at ways to spin off pieces of the problem so that you “eat the elephant bite by bite.” Delegate pieces to a subgroup for discussion at another time. 
  4. Ask others what specific action they need you to take so they can work more effectively.
  5. Thank others for bringing a matter to your attention and talking with you directly. Even if you did nothing wrong, at least say you are sorry that someone is upset. 

Eisaguirre’s worthwhile book expands on those and other ideas about how to move from conflict to creativity.

Welles is a retired federal employee who has worked in the public and private sectors. She lives in Bethesda, Md., and writes about work life topics for Federal Computer Week. She can be reached at judywelles@fcw.com.

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