5 Steps to Manage Conflict in a Small Office

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Conflict is a natural part of any work environment, but that doesn’t mean that we enjoy dealing with it. Conflict situations are often exacerbated among small teams, where we have to deal closely with one another on a daily basis. Knowing this, you’d think it would be impossible to hide from conflict in a small office. Surprisingly, the opposite is often true. Some advisers sweep it under the rug, pretending it doesn’t exist. Others are so averse to conflict that they agree to things they have no intention of following through on, which creates an entirely different situation altogether.

As firms become more sophisticated and complex, among the many skills business owners need to have is the ability to manage conflict—be it among staff, other advisers, or throughout the organization. How do you deal with it? Approaches can vary, but I believe the following five steps should form your core strategy:

1. Understand the Significance of the Issue

Who cares about the issue, and how does it affect the organization? It can be difficult to separate the issue from the emotions of the individuals involved. One way to diffuse an emotionally laden situation so you can reasonably discuss the problem is to bring clients into the equation. How are they affected by the conflict? Shifting the focus to another party can help put everyone—advisers and staff alike—on equal footing.

2. Gather Information

It sounds basic, but you should ask each person involved in the conflict to share their perception of the issue. Take turns listening to each side’s point of view—you can even use a timer to make sure they have the same amount of time to present their case.

Another information-gathering technique involves drawing a line down the center of a whiteboard and asking each side to list the facts (not perceptions or opinions) relating to the problem. Focusing on the facts naturally takes some of the emotion out of the response.

3. Articulate the Problem

A well-stated problem is half solved. Writing down a “problem statement” gets everyone to agree on what the key issue is. And that word is important. People in conflict situations tend to dredge up past history—whether the issues are related or not—resulting in a clumpy mess resembling a bowl of cold spaghetti. Agreeing on the one specific problem is critical to finding a solution.

4. Propose Potential Solutions

As a team, brainstorm different approaches to solving the problem. This allows everyone’s voice to be heard while also improving the chances that you’ll come up with a creative solution that no one has thought of before.

5. Agree on the Process

The final step to manage conflict often requires negotiation. Consider doing a pilot test of a particular solution. This way, participants can regroup to assess the effectiveness of the approach in solving the problem and decide whether a different approach may be warranted.

In a small office, the kneejerk reaction is to run away from uncomfortable situations. But finding a way to manage conflict with a logical approach can help you defuse the situation, engage participants, and discover a solution better than anyone could have arrived at alone.

Joni Youngwirth_2014 for webJoni Youngwirth
Managing Principal of Practice Management

Commonwealth Financial Network
Waltham, Mass.

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