Building bridges: managing conflict in the workplace

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Date: May-June 2009
From: Bar Leader(Vol. 33, Issue 5)
Publisher: American Bar Association
Document Type: Article
Length: 1,208 words

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All of us experience conflict. Since you can't prevent conflict, the most important thing is to learn how to handle or manage it in productive ways. One source of conflict that we find in today's workplace is based on the amount of diversity we have among our workforce.

Today's workplace consists of individuals from all backgrounds and ages. In this environment of diversity, there are ways in which we are similar--the glue, the bond that may hold us together--and there are also ways in which we are different from one another. The differences may cause tension and disrupt the flow of work. Whenever you have more than one person in your workplace, the potential for conflict is inevitable. This is no less true within a bar association headquarters than in any other workplace.

One dimension of diversity is age. For the first time in the history of the workplace we have four, sometimes five, generations working side by side. Each generation has specific defining characteristics about how its members approach life, not just work--hence the potential for conflict.

In a recent survey conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management, 40 percent of human resource professionals observed conflict among employees as a result of generational differences. In organizations with 500 or more employees, 58 percent of HR professionals reported conflict between younger and older workers, largely due to differing perspectives on work ethic and work-life balance.

The ability to manage and resolve conflict constructively from person to person and cross-generationally is a critical skill that affects morale and productivity. How do we go about building the bridges across differences, and in particular, across the generations?

Some believe that values from one person to another, and often from generation to generation, may be the source of conflict in the workplace. The place where conflict arises is not necessarily in the values themselves; it is in how the values are expressed or the fact that one person interprets a value differently from how another does. The behaviors that reflect these values differ among people. For example, some people in the workplace might be more likely to compromise when working on a project. Others will dig in their heels and take a "my way or the highway" approach. But these differences really say more about individual approaches (or personalities) than about attributes of a particular generation.

Before jumping to conclusions or making generalizations, challenge your assumptions about others and develop a level of knowledge and understanding about the individuals who work with you. Information about another person or group may be used as a starting point or guideline from which to learn more. This information leaves room to consider individuals within a group or within a generation; therefore, it certainly does not apply to all members of a group. To this end, try using the following statements to engage the other person and gain a greater understanding of his or her perspective:

* What I want you to know about people from my generation is ...

* I would love to teach you more about ...

* What I could probably learn from you is ...

* What I need from you is ...

A useful tool

In addition, consider the model for conflict resolution called the DESC. This model allows one to address issues in a four-step manner, achieving positive results.

The acronym "DESC" stands for describe, explain (or express), state (or specify), and consequences. The consequences part of the DESC script can be more effective when used as a positive inducement, rather than a negative consequence. You could also offer a less tangible inducement, such as, "And then I think everyone can be more productive"

Framing complaints or requests using what's known as DESC scripting is a useful technique for both managers/supervisors and rank-and-file employees. The following script takes you through an example of this four-step model:

"Alex, I need to talk to you. Is this time OK? Today after the meeting, you were frustrated about how Sue went on and on in the meeting, and you continued to talk negatively about her in front of others. I can understand that you may have been upset because she couldn't be succinct. But the additional attacks, I believe, were inappropriate. I believe others were uncomfortable, as was I. I think if we stick to the facts, per se, it will not alienate others and you won't be seen in a negative manner. Thanks for listening. Enjoy the rest of your day."

Think about the following scenarios, in which there's a conflict that may be based on generational differences, and how to address them using DESC scripting.

Scenario I:

Joan is a friend of yours. Both of you have been with the same organization for 20 years. Recently, she has made some comments about a new, 20-something staff member, calling him a slacker and a loser. How would you handle this?

Scenario II:

Tom, your board president, makes inappropriate comments about the incoming board president to other board members. He feels her family responsibilities will limit her time availability and ultimately her effectiveness. What would you do about this situation?

Expect and accept some conflict

Again, since conflict is perfectly normal, we should expect it to occur and accept its existence. Trying to stop all conflict may not be the best use of our time and energy. Besides, not all conflict is undesirable, Conflict can also be very constructive because it brings areas of disagreement out into the open, helps to clarify understandings and perceptions, encourages dialogue between people, and stimulates the development of solutions that can lead to improved relationships.

What is critical for resolving conflict is developing an understanding of, and a trust in, shared goals It requires showing a respect for others that in turn enables: everyone to work for mutual benefit.

There are no magical phrases or simple procedures for managing conflict. Hoover, there are strategies for dealing with and managing conflict. Knowing when and how to use these techniques can make you a more effective leader or individual contributor in your multigenerational workplace.


Some experts divide and define the age groups differently, but generally, today's workplace is said to be composed of four generations:

* Traditionalists (born between 1920 and 1945),

* Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964),

* Gen Xers (born between 1965 and 1980), and

* Millennials (born between 1981 and 2000).



Initiate by beginning with a neutral, nonthreatening opener. Then:

1. DESCRIBE the unwanted behavior (give example).

2. EXPLAIN/EXPRESS the impact of the behavior on the organization (e.g., cost, time) or individuals (e.g., frustration).

3. STATE/SPECIFY what you want the person to do differently.

4. CONSEQUENCES should be stated in the positive (unless there are employment or legal implications). Close by asking for understanding or stating an expectation.


Margaret A. Sanchez is principal at Sanchez & Associates, an organizational development consulting firm based in Rochester, N. Y. Her firm works with organizations on a full range of matters, including human resources, strategic planning, diversity initiatives, and leadership development. She spoke about conflict resolution in a workshop at the Midyear Meeting of the National Association of Bar Executives, held this February in Boston.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A199396283