WITH all the responsibilities of being a leader, dealing with conflict is one of the most frustrating and one of the biggest drains on managers today.

Managing conflict is a huge drain on valuable resources and results in reduced productivity, lower morale and increased costs.

The root problem

Many employees attribute much of the conflict they experience to personality clashes and egos.

This attribution is echoed in my experience as an organisation development consultant, mediator and coach.

My work has allowed me to delve deeper into these situations and explore the dynamics.

And my experience has shown that most conflict is not caused by personality differences, but as a result of:

* Misaligned or misunderstood goals (working at cross-purposes);

* Unclear roles; and

* Unclear processes or procedures.

In fact, in my 34 years of working in and with organisations, I have never seen a personality as the root problem.

Someone’s behaviour may be troublesome, and people often ascribe behaviour to a personality problem, but this may or may not be true.

I think moving from observing behaviour to analysing someone’s personality is dangerous, inappropriate and beyond most of our skill sets.

Furthermore, we have almost no control over someone’s personality, so the endeavour to label it as “problematic” puts us in a no-win situation.

Rather than look at personalities, we need to look at the situation.

As a mediator and consultant, I start to dig deeper when people say that the problem is “the other person’s personality”.

I ask them to go back to observable behaviours: “What is happening in concrete, specific terms?”

I often ask people to laboriously detail events and processes.

Most of the time, they discover that it is not the other person’s personality that is the problem but rather a misunderstanding, confusion or a difference of opinion about goals, expectations, roles or processes.

These are easier to remedy (though not always) and are much less likely to be emotionally loaded.

Prevention tips

It is necessary for managers to not only resolve conflict but also to prevent it. And everyone — whether you are a leader, manager or co-worker — can help. Here’s how

* Increase time spent on start-up processes

When a new project begins or a new hire is on board, spend the upfront time to be clear about the job, including goals, expectations, roles, authority level, decision making, reporting lines, communication requirements and troubleshooting processes.

Be meticulous about the start-up process.

It is a big investment of time, often resisted by busy managers, but it is well worth it if it increases trust and productivity, speeds the learning curve and prevents problems later.

* Deal with problems quickly

As soon as a problem surfaces, deal with it before it becomes a conflict. It should be managed quickly. The earlier you intervene, the easier it will be to straighten out.

* Keep your eye on the facts

Do not start analysing or attributing motivation. Assume good intentions if anything.

Delve into the situation, asking questions to discover people’s understanding of the goals, of their roles and the role of others, and review work processes.

Get details and keep it objective. Focus on the problems and dynamics, not the people.

* Get people together

Listening to one side or the other sets up triangulation.

Bring the parties together and help them talk this out. Guide them, help them and communicate well.

With all parties in the room, you have more details and more perspectives, and people are held responsible for what they are saying.

Co-workers need to learn how to talk through issues together.

* Take ownership

You have a part in any situation in which you are involved.

Look for your contribution and be willing to do something about it.

If you are a manager, don’t back off from saying what you want or stating that a decision is yours to make.

Sometimes, employees are clashing because you have not been clear or decisive. Step up and ask others to do the same.