Workplace Conflict Management: How to See Conflict Coming and Attack It Head-On

During my nearly 20 years in the accounting profession I have spent about half my career as an educator helping students become CPAs and the other half honing the right skills to be successful in the field. Throughout my career, both as an accountant and an educator, I have interacted with a wide variety of employers who have often noted one key area where many accounting and finance graduates could use additional training – conflict management in the workplace.

Although things like negotiation, conflict resolution, stress management, and strong communication skills are not always discussed in school, they are crucial tools to succeeding in the workplace, and key skills employers seek in new grads.  While we spend most of our training in a controlled educational environment, learning elements such as law, ethics and theory, the reality is that the work environment is often laden with layers of communication issues, as well as client and co-worker related conflicts. In other words, your sense of logic and dexterity with numbers needs to be balanced by “soft skills” that facilitate effective and harmonious interaction with people.  Passing your driver’s test is great, but it’s your ability to keep your cool and navigate the road ahead that allows you to travel from Point A to Point B.

RECOGNIZING POTENTIAL CONFLICTS

CLIENT CONFLICT

If you can recognize a potential conflict scenario ahead of time, you can prepare yourself on how to handle it.  For example, many new CPAs who work in public accounting report being caught off-guard by the feeling of hostility encountered during their first audit, but the truth is that a bit of resentment is to be anticipated. Client employees may view you similarly to the IRS, as the prying big brother-type who is disrupting their day and checking their work. In addition, workplaces often come with hierarchies and political systems of which you are completely unfamiliar.

Gaining that understanding can allow you to better work with staff on-site by helping them to feel at ease.  For example, politely and clearly share what you will need from them in an effort to minimally disrupt their day.  Asking the best way to work with them and their chain of command at the office can help to ease tensions and allow everyone to more efficiently complete their jobs.

CO-WORKER WORK-STYLE AND GENERATIONAL CONFLICTS

Let’s not forget about the potential conflicts that can arise between colleagues, supervisors and subordinates. Any number of factors, including individual work styles, pet peeves, and values, can be potential sources of contention.  Also, generation gaps between employees can occasionally present a challenge as communication styles and approach to work can potentially be different and polarizing.

For example, I’ve often heard examples where someone from the Baby Boomer generation may view a Millennial’s lack of personal interaction and focus on technology as an area of improvement while the Millennial may see a Baby Boomer’s lack comfort with technology and authoritarian approach as outdated and uninspired.  Here’s the first rule of managing generational conflict: stereotypes are simply socially acceptable excuses for prejudging and bad behavior. The first step is to recognize that a generational gap does indeed exist, and not dismiss or misunderstand the other person’s point of view because it happens to be different from your own. Look beneath the surface to find out what’s really going on, and realize that different doesn’t necessarily mean wrong.  Then, you and your co-worker can work together to find the best ways to communicate.

For example, the Millennial can make an extra effort to work on personal interaction and set up additional face-to-face meetings and ask for insights/advice from their co-worker whose years of experience can be a beneficial learning tool.  The Baby Boomer can take strides to minimize the authoritarian aspects of their approach and engage their co-worker in an open dialogue to provide thoughtful feedback, while keeping an open mind to ideas and approaches suggested by their Millennial co-worker.  Work to set-aside generational biased and create an open, respectful dialogue that is mutually beneficial to both parties.

TIPS FOR TAKING CONFLICT HEAD-ON

People who manage conflict well share several traits in common and working to hone these traits and skills can help any employee learn to take conflict head-on and walk away unscathed.

Navigating Negotiation:  Having strong negotiation skills means understanding good relationships are all about give and take.  A master negotiator can recognize that there are times when it is better to retreat as the battle on that front is not critical, while keeping in mind the big picture and knowing when it is key to take a stand to ensure you win the war.

Solution-Oriented:  Regardless of personal agendas, employees who are solution-oriented focus on how to ensure the company pushes the project through to the finish line and they often value work relationships and accomplishing the big picture goal over being “right” every time. However, they are not pushovers, nor do they ignore red flags or warning signs that signal something may be off.  They recognize when an issue needs to be addressed and they take the initiative to respond before it becomes something more serious.

Emotional Intelligence:  Hone your skills to remain poised and show grace under pressure instead of losing control and becoming overly reactive.  In moments of frustration, it is always good to walk away, talk to a mentor or friend and think through your response strategically before taking any action.

Good Humor:  Those who remember to not take themselves too seriously and cultivate healthy opportunities to let off steam are often more successful in work environments.

Commanding Communication Skills:  Having strong communications skills, both interpersonal and written, are key to conflict resolution.  Strong communicators often take a moment to think about how they can continue to improve their skills and ask themselves questions such as… Am I a good listener?  Do I truly understand others and respond to their questions/needs? Am I making eye contact and focusing solely on the conversation at-hand with no distractions? What attitude am I projecting with my words and actions? Am I organizing my thoughts?  Thinking through these questions and performing a self-evaluation from time-to-time can help you to be a stronger communicator in the workplace and in-turn be more successful in your job.

Whenever I take a test to renew my driver’s license, I am grateful for my ability to read and memorize the theory of the rules of the road. But, when I drive to work, I rely on a far more important skill set to get me to my destination safely: my ability to take in information, anticipate potential hazards, interact with other drivers on the road, and navigate my vehicle safely. In our profession, it is not whether or not we can pass a test that determines our success; it is whether or not we can navigate the daily hurdles and get ourselves and our clients from Point A to Point B. Trust me, you will never regret cultivating “soft skills,” because no matter where you find yourself professionally, you will rely on them to both get you through the day and build yourself a solid reputation.

 

Michael Brown is Director of US Accounting Operations at Becker Professional Education. Throughout his nearly 20 years in the accounting field, with the last 10 spent as an educator, he has helped thousands of candidates earn their CPA credential.

 

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CPA, CMA, CGMA, CPA Operations Director at Becker