Managing Conflict in the Workplace

September 14, 2016

Conflict occurs in all relationships. It is natural and it can be detrimental only when it is ignored or not dealt with appropriately.

When handled well at work, conflict can strengthen relationships, and lead to more energy, innovation and greater outcomes. However, when conflict is inappropriately handled in the workplace, it can lead to dysfunction in the form of increased stress, lower productivity and reduced revenue.

One in four employees are so upset by the idea of facing workplace conflict that they call in sick or are otherwise absent from work. That’s the finding from the CPP Global Human Capital Report. In addition, 10 percent of those surveyed stated that a project failed as a direct result of negative conflict, and another third said this negative conflict resulted in someone leaving the company.

Employees in American businesses say they spend on average 2.8 hours each week dealing with conflict, which collectively amounts to $359 billion lost annually to organizations!

Half of all employees surveyed see personality clashes and warring egos as the primary cause of this workplace conflict.

Conflict is unavoidable and therefore we need to learn how to appropriately deal with it if we want to be more effective and productive at work.

We are predisposed to dealing with conflict in one of five different ways, according to the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument. These ways are: competing, accommodating, avoiding, compromising and collaborating. Each is appropriate for a given situation, but most of us are stuck—often unconsciously—using the same one or two in all situations. And this means very often ineffectively dealing with the conflict at hand.

Each conflict strategy has its time and place, and using the right one at the right time can make all the difference.

  1. Competing is assertive and uncooperative. In this mode you try to satisfy your own concerns at the other’s expense. Competing may be appropriate when you are standing up for your rights or defending your position.
  2. Accommodating is unassertive and cooperative. This is when you attempt to satisfy the other’s concerns at the expense of your own. Accommodating can be appropriate when you need to obey an order or choose to yield to another’s point of view.
  3. Avoiding is unassertive and uncooperative. In this mode you are sidestepping the conflict without solving either your concern or the other’s. Avoiding can be used when it may be better not to engage in the conflict at that particular time and place. But it can be especially destructive if you don’t go back and address the issue once you do have the time.
  4. Compromising is intermediate in both assertiveness and cooperativeness. Here is where you search for middle ground that partially satisfies each person’s concerns. Compromising may be an appropriate strategy when there isn’t time to explore concerns more thoroughly.
  5. Collaborating is both assertive and cooperative. In this strategy you are seeking a solution that fully satisfies the concerns of each person. This requires the courage to stay engaged with the other person in order to really understand all concerns and perspectives, and to learn from each other’s insights to find an agreeable conclusion to the conflict.

“Each of these four strategies for dealing with conflict can have some success,” writes author Don Yaeger in his book Great Teams: 16 Things High-Performing Organizations Do Differently. “But Great Teams set a standard above the rest by choosing the fifth option—collaborating. This means they do their best to listen actively, consider all points of view, and stress the common purpose and shared values of the organization.”

Understanding which of the five strategies we are predisposed to using most often is key, and then learning the value of the other four and putting them into practice at the right times. In this way, we can better navigate the conflict that will occur with our colleagues.

The collaborating option has huge benefits and it pays to begin using this strategy more often when conflict occurs in your workplace.  This assertive and cooperative strategy enables you to be fully engaged, without fighting, and remain in the arena when it may be easier to flee or capitulate. While it may slow things down initially, it will ultimately result in higher engagement and trust, and, more than likely, fewer conflicts moving forward.

Embracing Conflict with an Assertive and Cooperative Attitude

November 1, 2012

Invariably, when I tell people what I do as a consultant, the area that gets the most interest is in my work helping people navigate conflict at work. It seems everyone is struggling with conflict these days. Little wonder.

Conflict is prevalent throughout our personal relationships: quarreling with a spouse about money and division of domestic chores; battling with teenagers about limited screen time, completing homework and acceptable curfews; arguing with friends about issues, politics, sports or activities. And conflict continually impacts our professional relationships: fighting with co-workers for power, resources and projects; locking horns with those we manage about completing objectives, meeting deadlines and budgeting; arguing with the boss about giving us the kind of direction and support we need to be successful.

And then there is politics. If Barack Obama is re-elected, will congress work more cooperatively and help move this country forward? If Mitt Romney is elected, will he find a way to bring Democrats and Republicans together to get things done in a way we haven’t seen for a generation? If polling data is any indication, neither outcome is likely or expected.

Conflict is not new, so why does it seem so much more prevalent and detrimental to our lives? In my work with teams, I continually remind them that conflict is natural, to be expected and should be embraced in order for groups to thrive. Diversity of opinion should be honored as it can bring about more creative solutions.

But we seem to have forgotten how to respectfully disagree and continue working on the problem in spite of our differences. As a colleague of mine likes to say, it’s important to attack the problem, yet respect the people.

Though conflict often has a negative association, it’s important to remember the benefits of such disagreement. Conflict can:

  • Focus attention on problems that have to be solved, and energize and motivate you to solve them.
  • Clarify who you are and what your values are.
  • Help you understand who the other person is and what his or her values are.
  • Result in an agreement that often allows all participants to achieve their goals.
  • Strengthen relationships by increasing their respect and trust for each other.
  • Increase the ability to resolve future conflicts with each other constructively.

In every conflict there should be both the concern to satisfy our own needs and goals as well as maintain the relationship with the other person. Both are essential for a successful resolution to a conflict.

To successfully resolve conflicts all of the elements of clear communication and respectful behavior are important. These include:

  • Listen with an open mind to fully understand the other person’s perspective. Don’t stop listening in order to plan how you will defend your position versus theirs. Instead, listen attentively and then take a moment to put yourself in his or her shoes before responding. See if you can find common ground.
  • Paraphrase to demonstrate you correctly heard and understood the other person. This alone goes a long way towards deepening the understanding, which enables the opportunity for win-win solutions. It also demonstrates that you care about what the other person said and this is incredibly helpful.
  • Mind your body language to physically show you are actively engaged in resolving the problem. Remember that the majority of what we communicate is through our body language—regardless of whether we are speaking. Be mindful of posture that indicates you are open and receptive.
  • Stay with the problem, especially when it gets hard. Despite how emotionally charged and sensitive some conflicts can become, you will be rewarded with a lasting solution if you are able to continue working on it until fully resolved. Though there will be times when it is important to take a time out, always return to working on the problem rather than let it go unresolved.
  • Whenever possible, choose to be assertive and cooperative in reaching a synergistic solution. Having a win-win perspective means you are equally concerned with your and the other person’s needs and goals as well as maintaining the relationship you share. Clearly state what is important to you and work to find areas of common ground that allow for a compatible solution.

Keep these points in mind as you enter into conflict. As writer James Baldwin once said, “not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

The key is to embrace conflict in order to move forward with a sustainable solution as well as to continue growing in relationship.