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Conflict resolution or talk culture?

Most people tend to think of conflict as an extreme situation with 2 sides who can not get along with each other at all. We talk about "conflict zones" and "conflict resolution". In fact, has it struck you how many of the terms we use in the workplace are derived from military terminology? This month let's look at a problem which did not start off as a conflict.

Roberto is part of a 5-person IT support team in a retail company. When his mother died in Italy, Roberto asked for some time off to settle her estate. It was agreed with HR that he could take one week's compassionate leave which would not come out of his annual holiday allowance. His manager, Sam, showed understanding and divided the tasks among the rest of the team. Towards the end of the week that Roberto was away, however, Sam received an email from him saying he had fallen ill and would not be back at his desk next Monday. The team soldiered on.

Roberto did not return for 4 weeks. On his return, the rest of the team asked him how he was feeling, said they were pleased he was back. All except Mirjam. She was distinctly cool and unfriendly, and over the next few weeks was often sarcastic and even rude. Roberto discovered that she sometimes did not pass on important information to him. He tried to shrug off the feeling of how hostile she was, as he did not want to open up any conflict, and he certainly did not want to bother Sam.

It would be better for all concerned if Roberto could sort out what was going on with Mirjam. There are obviously bad feelings which probably go back to incidents prior to Roberto's stay in Italy. Ideally, Mirjam would have spoken to Roberto much earlier  but because there was no constructive talk culture in the unit - problems were not talked about - a real conflict had been allowed to develop. 

Most  of us only know 2 ways of approaching problem situations such as this one. Depending on our temperament and our past experience, including how potential conflict was solved in the family, we either pretend there is nothing wrong and shove the problem under the metaphorical rug, or we stage an out-an-out confrontation, showing our anger and demanding our due. Most people choose the first option. However, this is often more destructive than a burst of anger.

It depends what is at stake. The 5-person team has to continue to work together. Sorting out difficulties as they arise is vital for a harmonious working atmosphere, which in turn ensures that we get our work done efficiently. Good talk culture prevents conflicts.

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