To start off today, we’re going to go way way back to a place you might have forgotten existed—your office. I want you to take a moment and think about the break room in your office. Is it one of those traditional alcoves with a couple of seats and tables for folks to eat their lunches? Or is it a bar situation with an automated coffee machine that pumps out java on demand? Whether it’s a pot of joe or a keurig pod situation, these spaces do more than provide a needed caffeine boost. They are hubs of connection where work priorities can, for a moment, disappear and folks from all levels can socialize. Employees with pressing questions can grab their bosses in the middle of a coffee run to ask for clarification on a project. Or stressed out peers can vent their frustrations about a tight work deadline before they get back into the thick of it. These kinds of spaces are vital to a healthy and engaged workforce.
Conflict Resolution in the WFH Era
Unfortunately, with all of us working from home, we’re missing these kinds of interactions with each other. A joke in the hallway or casual good morning from across the room are impossible when we’re all working in home offices on our own work schedules. On one hand, this is great for a leader. Projects can be worked on at any time and folks are often working on different things at different times. This asynchronous work can lead to folks solely connecting through standups, comments on a word document or slack channels. These modes of communication are rife for misunderstandings and frustrations. I mean, really, who wants to read a comment tearing apart a project they’ve sunk countless hours into? This distance has created a dissonance in teams. Petty conflicts in the workplace are going unresolved turning proverbial molehills into mountains of strife.
Conflict resolution is never easy, even in the best of circumstances. Dealing with it when we’re working from home, however, means taking intentional steps towards patching things up with your coworkers. We’ve put together a few tips on how to address conflict in the “work-from-homeplace” that can help you best resolve disagreements on your teams.
Back in the office, if things got heated in a meeting, it was easier to solve minor disagreements. We could often interpret intention with non-verbal context and could clarify or apologize between meetings. Nowadays, it takes far more effort to smooth things out when feathers get ruffled. Asking for a call or sending a calendar invite gives weight to these minor infractions. That’s why, when we see a problem begin to arise, we need to have the courage to approach it head on. When conflict rears its ugly head, it’s natural to shut down or try to ignore it, but this impulse could encourage resentment and hostility towards your fellow workers. In situations like these, be willing to take that thirty second call to connect with the person you feel at odds with. If you made the error, be willing to say you’re sorry. While it might feel difficult to put your ego aside, it’s imperative that you take steps towards resolving conflict for the good of your teams and your coworkers.
2. Stay Curious
In this new working environment, we’re all moving quickly and things can get lost along the way. It’s important to own your relationships and create the space to get in front of conflict. This requires you to be curious about how you’re showing up every day. If you’ve been working with a team on a hard project, consider reaching out to the team to ask how your teammates are managing stress. When you follow up with people regarding conflict resolution, make sure you’re open and curious about where they are coming from. It might be helpful to ask straight out “has there been anything I’ve done that has caused a disconnect?” or “are there things left unresolved between us?” Taking the time to ask these questions establishes an open and honest line of communication where you both can get to the bottom of the things that might be bugging you or your co-workers.
3. Clarify, Clarify, Clarify
One of the biggest cognitive biases that trips us up in our daily interactions is the confirmation bias. In action, the confirmation bias leads us to believe that everyone perceives information the way we perceive it. This can lead us to assume that, after a specific meeting, all in attendance are on the same page about next steps and the action items pertaining to the meeting. This couldn’t be farther from the truth! A big way to avoid conflict is to always clarify with your coworkers. And this isn’t only about the content of a meeting. Make sure you’re clarifying your coworker’s tone and intent as well. If something feels off about an interaction, before you react, take a step back and ask them to further explain what they meant in their comment.
Engineers can be notoriously direct people. I remember a meeting where we had announced a decision that unsettled one of our engineers but, instead of derailing the meeting, they stayed quiet and attentive. Afterwards, I was getting my second tea of the day when they approached me and asked for clarity on why we made that decision. This allowed us to quickly align and provide rationale to our decision making. The engineer sought clarity instead of making assumptions. Stay open to better understand other perspectives so that you can stop conflicts before they even happen.
4. Be Consistent
Finally, my last tip for conflict resolution is to remain consistent in these conflict resolution practices. Conflict is difficult. No one likes it. But the more you can add courage, curiosity, and an instinct for clarification to your daily practice, the easier it will be to see conflict coming and take steps to resolve it. Ultimately, conflict resolution largely comes down to communication. The more you can have a consistent line of communication with your coworkers, the more you will be able to solve disagreements as they arise.
In these tough times, it’s easy to let our stress get the best of us. For some of us, just showing up to work every day can take an incredible amount of energy. As we are all adapting to this new way of working, we can sometimes lose sight of the fact that we are all experiencing these upheavals in our own ways. While our stresses might be different, we can all empathize with the amount of pressure we’re all under. Think about that next time you encounter a particularly difficult situation with a coworker. Give yourself the space (and the grace) to see them as the human they are—not the screen that they might be on. If you need it, maybe take a step away from the computer. It’d be the perfect time to grab a cup of coffee.