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Managing Workplace Conflict - 8 December 2009

One of the most memorable conflicts in television history was the long-running feud between Mrs Mangel and Madge on Neighbours back in the 1980s. In many ways the two ladies were alike. Never afraid to speak their minds and immensely proud of themselves, it’s unsurprising they were constantly at each other’s throats, fighting and bickering.

In all conflicts, there are three factors that are prevalent when two or more people can’t see eye to eye. And we only need to look at Mrs Mangel and Madge to see these factors in action.

Good Conflict versus Bad Conflict: Mrs Mangel and Madge were sworn enemies, and so this resulted in them becoming fierce competitors. Whether it was a cake-baking competition, a cycling race, or a new job, the two women were relentlessly trying to outdo each other. What they never realised was that their rivalry pushed them to reach unexpected heights.

At work, determine whether the conflict is good or bad. If it’s enhancing your results, then it's healthy competition. You might even consider orchestrating it to help your team achieve its objectives. But if the conflict between your employees is having a detrimental effect on their performance, then it’s time to pursue some type of conflict resolution strategy.

Reality versus Personality: Mrs Mangel thought Madge was arrogant, snobbish, and gossipy. And Madge thought Mrs Mangel was arrogant, snobbish, and gossipy. Therefore, the conflict that arose between them wasn’t about real issues, but about personality clashes. Their mutual disdain fuelled their disagreements, rather than substantive matters.

At work, unearth the core concern. The cause of the conflict will either be based in reality (such as policies, decisions, and resources), or on personality (such as perceptions, biases, and feelings). Get to the root cause before the conflicted parties find reality problems to justify their personality ones. Eliminate the reality problems as a high priority.

Immediacy versus Delay: Mrs Mangel adored Madge’s other half, Harold. Despite non-stop complaints to Harold about “that Ramsay woman”, he never intervened until the day of his wedding to Madge. He finally stood up to Mrs Mangel and told her he loves Madge and nothing would change that - but by then it was too late. Mrs Mangel got her revenge by playing the church organ badly as Madge walked down the aisle.

Deal with conflict as soon as it occurs. The longer you leave it, the worse it gets. The obvious signs are easy to see, so be on the lookout for the subtle ones that are harder to notice. These include employees avoiding each other; snide remarks made publicly or privately; power plays; increased use of impersonal communication such as e-mail and written notes; and employees being excluded from decisions and projects.

To paraphrase the Neighbours theme song: "Co-workers, everybody needs good co-workers; With a little understanding, you can find the perfect blend; Co-workers, should be there for one another; That's when good co-workers become good friends."

 

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