How to foster workplace collaboration

Seeing a situation from someone else's position can help resolve conflict.

Managed well, conflict in the workplace can become a catalyst for collaboration.

Conflict has traditionally had a bad reputation. We’re familiar with it as a destabilising force. Disputes at work distract employees from their job, create unnecessary stress, and contribute to performance issues and costly staff turnover.

“When conflict escalates to a point where parties are not communicating with each other, and worse – when they start talking very negatively to colleagues and friends about the other person, the situation becomes unproductive for the people in conflict and those around them,” says Samantha Hardy, principal at Conflict Coaching International and an expert on conflict management and resolution. 

“Lots of time and energy is wasted on negative emotions instead of being used to work towards a constructive solution.”

US employees at all levels spent around 2.8 hours a week dealing with unproductive conflict, CPP Global revealed in its 2008 Human Capital report.

“When task and process conflicts are not managed well, these can easily turn into relationship conflicts, as the people involved start to take their differences personally,” says Hardy. 

However, in the right environment, conflict fosters collaboration, competition and problem-solving. When two people effectively communicate their desire for different things, “often together they can come up with creative solutions that meet both their needs”, says Hardy.

“If we never had any conflict, we would never have any change, development or innovation,” she says. “Conflict, when managed well, provides people with an opportunity to increase their understanding of one another.”

Resolving conflicts

In the Harvard Business Review Guide to Office Politics, Karen Dillon writes that most workplace disagreements stem from one of three sources: different agendas, different perceptions and different personal styles. Hardy also categorises conflict in three ways: task (what should be done); process (how the task should be performed); and relationships.

Before you approach your colleague to address an issue, first articulate it to yourself. “Say it out loud,” advises Dillon. Leave your anger and irritation at the door – it’s important to “separate emotion from outcome” and to concentrate on the problem, not the person.

When you meet with your colleague, be prepared to have an honest conversation about the issue at hand. Empathise with their position and have the courage to be frank in your responses.

“When we attribute negative intention to others’ behaviour, we can often create conflict where it doesn’t actually exist.” Samantha Hardy, Conflict Coaching International 

Conflict resolution relies on clear and effective communication – a skill Hardy says we’re losing in the digital age. “These days we often communicate ‘at’ others by email, posting on social media, and text message, rather than communicating ‘with’ others by an ongoing, real-time, face-to-face conversation.”

Distributed teams – increasingly common in organisations today – often exacerbate conflict. 

“Because of the lack of face-to-face contact, which helps to accelerate empathy, task-related disputes can more quickly devolve into relationship conflicts,” writes Keith Ferrazzi in “How to manage conflict in virtual teams” published in the Harvard Business Review.

This tendency can be mitigated by establishing an online discussion board in a shared virtual workspace, where members of a distributed team can communicate in real-time to raise concerns and give honest feedback.

The final option is escalation. Don’t go behind your colleague’s back; be open about your intention to ask your manager to help find a solution. “Transparency builds trust,” writes Dillon.

Cross-cultural communication

A disregard for cultural norms can also lead to discord. Louise Dunn, director of capability development at Asialink Business, says conflict can arise when someone has a lack of self-awareness about their preferred work style.

“We spend a lot of time helping people to understand their preferences. For example, are they direct communicators or indirect? Are they very flat in terms of how they view relationships, organisational structures, or are they very hierarchical?”

It’s these points of difference that can lead to tension when doing business in Asia, she says. Among the many factors influencing work styles – such as gender, professional background and organisational culture – is national culture. While Australia is a nation of direct communicators, in China, for example, communication tends to be indirect. 

“The tension between direct and indirect communication can be a source of conflict,” explains Dunn.

Professional Development: Leading teams: dealing with conflict. Develop and refine your leadership skills to successfully deal with and manage conflict in your team.

A common source of confusion arising from cultural differences is the reluctance to say no among many Asian cultures. In some cases, “yes” from a colleague can mean “I have heard you”, “I understand” or “I’ll do what you say”. Often, says Dunn, “yes” is offered “to avoid conflict and maintain harmony … a real aspiration of a lot of cultures in the region”.

This ties in with the concept of face, synonymous with notions of credibility and status that are common in many Asian cultures. Responding with a direct no can result in the loss of face, as can a show of anger and disregarding hierarchy.

“We can also ‘give’ face,” says Dunn, who likens it to making deposits in a bank account. Acknowledging someone’s success or special effort in a group environment, showing respect and trust, remembering people’s names and titles and addressing them appropriately, “can go a long way to giving face”. 

“When we do have some misunderstanding as a result of cultural differences, we’ve got a lot of deposits in the ‘bank’,” Dunn explains. 

“The relationship has been established and can sustain those misunderstandings that will from time to time arise as we get to know one another better.” 

"If we never had any conflict, we would never have any change, development or innovation." Samantha Hardy, Conflict Coaching International

What may be appropriate in one culture may not be appropriate in another. A direct conversation with the person with whom we are in conflict, acceptable in Australia, may cause offence in other cultures, observes Hardy. 

“If the other person is older or more important in the organisational hierarchy, it may not be culturally appropriate to raise the matter directly with them, and you may need to approach an intermediary.”

Dunn and her team at Asialink Business help clients develop skills to adapt their behaviour and navigate the situations, and occasional misunderstandings that can arise between different cultures. 

“It’s that lack of awareness, knowledge and skills that create that tension in the first place,” she says. 

Common mistakes 

Humans are naturally conflict-averse creatures, which means sometimes we would rather maintain an unhappy status quo than have a potentially awkward confrontation, says Hardy. 

“It may seem easier to delay having that difficult conversation, but the longer we avoid communicating about the conflict, the harder it becomes to resolve.” 

Don’t assume you know what your adversary is thinking. When someone does something that we don’t like, we often assume they have done it deliberately, which can lead to the situation escalating. A simple conversation can explain the motivation behind the offending behaviour. 

“When we attribute negative intention to others’ behaviour, we can often create conflict where it doesn’t actually exist,” says Hardy.

Be open to learning about the other person’s perspective. “We tend to only think about the situation from our own perspective, and we forget that other people may have different information that might change the way we think about the situation,” she says.

Fully appreciating someone else’s position can be a fast track to resolving tensions – and that holds true in many conflicts. 

How to avoid cross-cultural missteps

  • Take time to note and observe cultural similarities and differences
  • Invest time in building an understanding of your own work style and how it might differ to your own and other cultures
  • Appreciate differences in communication styles (including direct versus indirect)
  • Be ready to share information about yourself and help people understand your level of responsibility within your organisation
  • When organising meetings (be that face-to-face or virtual ones), allow time to get to know one another. Be patient and don’t expect meetings to start (or run) on time in all instances
  • Be respectful of hierarchy, and the need to give and maintain face
  • Know how to conduct yourself appropriately in a business meeting and take time to familiarise yourself with local business etiquette, which may vary from culture to culture.

Source: Asialink Business

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