How to manage conflict

How to manage conflict

Facing conflict can be about as fun as playing in traffic — and equally as stressful. Going against the conversational grain on a topic that you’re not even passionate about can put more gray hairs on your head than you’d care to see, which is why understanding conflict is so important. After all, the more you understand a challenge, the more equipped you are to overcome it.

People deal with conflict in different ways: yelling obscenities, assuming a defensive position or losing control of bodily fluids. None of these expressions is ideal — especially if you’re over the age of 10 — as they only promote further conflict.

A study conducted by Kristin Behfar of the University of Darden reveals that, contrary to public opinion, it’s not the topic of conflict that’s the problem. Rather, it’s how we fight that actually perpetuates a confrontation. Think about it. When was the last time you got mad at someone who spoke to you in a very soft, gentle tone? Or, look at it this way: Did anybody ever get mad at Mr. Rogers? Nope.

Here are four ways to improve how you deal with conflict before your next unwanted verbal exchange:

1. Be direct, but not intense.

The next time you’re in a discussion that’s about to go sour, look for two things (here’s a visual). First, listen to the language being used. Are people being overly direct or too passive? Too much directness and it’s seen as rude, not enough and it’s passive-aggressive. Communication is important but being too expressive can be interpreted as threatening, and the last thing you want to explain to your boss is how you had to choke out your colleague because she didn’t agree with you (and if it was a she then you’re going to have a lot of explaining to do).

Second, gauge the level of intensity inherent in the discussion. Are people being outright rude, overly facetious or dismissive? If the answer is yes, then it’s too intense.

Behfar advocates being “direct, but not too intense. And when you validate your venting colleague’s feelings of hurt and anger, know that you may be doing a disservice.”

2. Know the culture.

Just as language connotes different meanings in different contexts, so too does behavior. Many Asian cultures, for example, consider direct confrontation as impolite. The same goes for how conflict is perceived between a man and a woman. A man being “too” direct with a woman could be seen as a bully, whereas a woman may be seen as a bulldog.

The bottom line: know your surroundings and the personalities involved.

3. Be consistent.

Nothing sheds reliability faster than inconsistency. Trust is built when words and actions mirror each other — consistently. Integrity is established by doing the “right thing” in the absence of accountability — consistently. No matter what you do, or don’t do, consistency is key, and it’s paramount to building reliable behaviors.

4. Ask questions.

Nobody likes hearing the same voice all the time (this is when consistency isn’t cool). More so, if that voice is always in telling rather than listening mode then listening to it (again) can quickly act as a social repellent. By asking powerful questions, though, you extend your influence into two realms.

First, you assume a position of humility by placing yourself on the receiving end and playing to the other person’s ego. After all, the one topic that people enjoy talking about the most is themselves. Second, rather than an attack-by-talking methodology, you can now counterattack by listening, thus invoking greater curiosity in the other person and offering yourself as a credible source of enlightenment. Socrates would be proud.

Lastly, remember that conflict can be healthy, even with obscenities. Facing conflict actually builds trust because the fear associated with conflict is often not knowing how the other person will respond. Just like anything, the more you do it, the better you become.

How to manage conflict

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Conflict is the struggle between people with differing ideas, beliefs or goals. Conflict is inevitable in an organization. Working with different people who have different personalities and approaches to completing tasks eventually leads to conflict in the group. Learning about conflict management is essential for a team to perform successfully.

Conflict Management

Conflict management involves implementing certain strategies to eliminate the negative aspects of conflict, increase the positive aspects of conflict and to enhance performance and effectiveness in an organized setting. Rather than eliminating or avoiding disagreements, the purpose of conflict management is to teach groups conflict resolution skills, such as managing conflict, finding self-awareness about the types of conflict and effectively communicating while in conflict with a team member. These skills assist teams in establishing a positive outcome from conflict.

There are many opportunities for conflict management in the workplace. Common causes of conflict include poor communication, lack of teamwork or clearly defined individual responsibilities, inadequate team structure and disagreements about priorities. Conflict arises between individuals due to different styles of communication, cultural backgrounds and political and religious views. Conflict arises within groups due to disagreements between subgroups, and conflict arises between groups due to competition or rivalry.

Strategies

Conflict management involves using several strategies for resolving conflict including forcing, accommodating, avoiding, competing, compromising and collaborating. Forcing involves using formal authority to satisfy your own concern while disregarding the concern of the other individual. Accommodating involves allowing the other individual to satisfy his concern while disregarding your own concern. Competing involves both individuals competing to have his concern satisfied. Compromising involves attempting to resolve the conflict by partially satisfying the concerns of both individuals. Collaborating involves both individuals understanding both concerns and reaching a mutually satisfactory solution.

Conceptual Skills

Conceptual skills involve learning all about conflict. Conflict managers must understand the causes and theories of conflict to manage conflict. The manager must be able to understand why and when conflict arises and in what situations conflict frequently occurs. The conflict manager must also know the different tactics and strategies used to manage conflict.

Communication Skills

Conflict managers must also possess a few basic communication skills: listening, summarizing and questioning. Listening is supporting the speaker while he vents his frustration. Summarizing is giving the speaker a replay of what was said to show understanding. The purpose of questioning is to encourage conflict resolution by asking open questions that lead both parties to find a resolution to the disagreement.

Conflicts can be different, as well as your role in a situation. Generally, you would need standard conflict resolution skills, like listening and comprehending, ability to express yourself and your feelings, ability to analyse situation in a respectful and understanding way. Empathy would also be in handy. Body language means a lot. Experience in managing stress and anger. Loads of factors affect your ability to resolve conflict situations.

If you are writing some kind of research on the topic, look here to find ideas and inspiration.

First and foremost, you need to identify the differences between several types of conflicts. Conflicts can be interpersonal within an individual or interpersonal between two; also there are intragroup or intergroup conflicts. To separate the last two let’s imagine a situation in the organization. A team works on a product and faces a struggle on the productivity of certain members. The misunderstandings based on this issue and in boundaries of that group is intragroup conflict. The disputes beyond a team are intergroup conflicts.

For each type, we should clarify a right approach to solve the sharp situations.

  1. Interpersonal within an individual

From a psychological point of view, every person sometimes suffers from inner doubts and confrontation. They can lead to global problems, so it is better to avoid their progress. Personal analysis can probably decrease a level of anxiety by detecting the real reasons. The best decision to prevent subjective consequences is consulting a specialist or close people. Also, people should avoid being strict to themselves.

  1. Interpersonal between two individuals

This type can come in different scales. Thus, the raising conflict is more likely to prevent than a long-term. In cases of interpersonal disputes between two, empathy and changing of perspective are real friends. The give-and-take strategy is the most preferable here.

A major benefit of intragroup conflicts is a reasonable number of opinions. By analyzing them, misunderstandings can disappear immediately.

In real life, the intergroup disputes appear in almost every area. It can be either political conflicts, the disputes about traditions, misunderstandings within an organization, etc. Because of a scale of the problem, it is harder to come to an understanding with others. Still, step-by-step resolving can detect main disagreements and provide you with understanding ways of preventing conflict.

To conclude, the primary skills for resolving different conflicts are:

  1. An ability to look from another perspective
  2. Empathy
  3. Give-and-take positions
  4. Deep analysis

Accept conflict. Remember that conflict is natural and happens in every ongoing relationship. Since conflict is unavoidable we must learn to manage it. Conflict is a sign of a need for change and an opportunity for growth, new understanding, and improved communication. Conflict can not be resolved unless it is addressed with the appropriate individual(s).

Be a calming agent. Regardless of whether you are being a sounding board for a friend or you are dealing with your own conflict, your response to the conflict can escalate or decrease the intensity of the problem. To be calming, provide an objective or neutral point of view. Help plan how you are going to work with the other party to achieve resolution.

Listen actively. Work through how you feel, what the specific problem is and what impact it is having on you. Use I -based statements to help do this (see formula below).

  • I feel (strongest feeling)
  • When you (objective description of the behavior)
  • Because (specific impact or consequences)
  • I would like (what you want the person to do in the future to prevent the problem)

Analyze the conflict. This will help clarify the specific problem. Some questions that you may ask are:

  • What triggered the conflict?
  • Who are you angry with?
  • What are you not getting that you want?
  • What are you afraid of losing?
  • Is your conflict/anger accurate or over exaggerated?
  • How can your conflict be resolved?

Model neutral language. When people are in conflict they use inflammatory language such as profanity, name calling, and exaggerations that escalate the conflict. Restate inflammatory language in a more objective way to help make the information less emotionally laden and more useful for future discussions.

Separate the person from the problem. View the problem as a specific behavior or set of circumstances rather than attributing negative feelings to the whole person. This approach makes the problem more manageable and hopeful than deciding you “can’t stand” this person any longer.

Work together. This requires that each person stop placing blame and take ownership of the problem. Make a commitment to work together and listen to each other to solve the conflict.

Agree to disagree. Each person has a unique point of view and rarely agrees on every detail. Being right is not what is important. When managing conflict, seeking the “truth” can trap you rather than set you free. For example, consider the differing testimony of witnesses that all see the same car accident. Truth is relative to the person’s point of view.

Focus on the future. In conflict we tend to remember every single thing that ever bothered us about that person. People in conflict need to vent about the past but they often dwell on the past. Often the best way to take ownership of the problem is to recognize that regardless of the past, you need to create a plan to address the present conflict and those that may arise in the future.

“Move past positions.” A position is the desired outcome of a conflict. Often the position is “I need a new roommate” or “This person is impossible to live with.” Positions are not negotiable and result in impasse. To resolve conflict, each person has to “move past positions.”

Share your interests. To solve interpersonal conflict, all parties must talk about their interests or the WHYs behind their positions. They must share their true interests and work together to find a solution that satisfies those interests. Common interests for students are to sleep, study, entertain and relax in a comfortable atmosphere. Often their interests are more intangible such as respect, belonging, friendship, and fun. When individuals have differing lifestyles, values, and schedules the need to discuss their differences is critical in managing conflict. You must develop a balanced plan of give and take that satisfies everyone’s interests.

Be creative. Finding a resolution to the problem that satisfies everyone requires creativity and hard work. Be careful not to give in simply to avoid conflict or maintain harmony. Agreements reached too early usually do not last. Generate silly options to begin thinking “outside of the box” of original positions.

Be specific. When problem solving be very specific. For example if you are using a roommate agreement to facilitate the discussion make sure that everyone fully understands each point that is written down. Clarify ambiguous terms that each person may interpret differently.

Maintain confidentiality. Encourage others who are in conflict to deal directly with the person they are in conflict with. Avoiding the conflict and venting to others tends to escalate the conflict and fuels the rumor mill. If rumors are already part of the conflict, encourage them to work out a plan to put an end to the gossip. Do your part to quell rumors.

Last November, Philippe, a 33-year-old French banker, left Paris for a new challenge in London. He thought that a new job in a fast-growing British investment bank would give him valuable international experience and develop some new skills. The bigger salary and bonus were also a draw. One year on, Philippe has a different view […]

Last November, Philippe, a 33-year-old French banker, left Paris for a new challenge in London. He thought that a new job in a fast-growing British investment bank would give him valuable international experience and develop some new skills. The bigger salary and bonus were also a draw. One year on, Philippe has a different view […]

Last November, Philippe, a 33-year-old French banker, left Paris for a new challenge in London. He thought that a new job in a fast-growing British investment bank would give him valuable international experience and develop some new skills. The bigger salary and bonus were also a draw.

One year on, Philippe has a different view of his move. When I met him last week, he explained that the year had been a disaster and his job was in danger as staff had made formal complaints about his management style. He had found it difficult to adjust to his new role, but he had not realised that his style had created such conflict within his team.

Philippe felt he had been acting appropriately, but his colleagues and team members felt he had been inconsistent, favouring some members of his team and undermining others. His line manager had recommended coaching to help him improve his communication skills, understand the culture and develop his people skills. Philippe had agreed to the coaching but felt aggrieved that the bank had not done more to prepare him for his role with training and a proper induction. The main problem, he said, was the bank’s matrix structure and its focus on profit-making, which encouraged managers to fight for territory and resources rather than building teams and developing people. In short, the bank deliberately created a culture of conflict rather than collaboration.

Of course, both sides have a point. Philippe needs to change, but so does the environment in which he is operating. I am often asked to work with individuals in a conflict situation, but rarely does the organisation ask for feedback on why the conflict occurred and what they might do to prevent it. In truth, little is done at the organisational level to mitigate conflict.

Organisational conflict is emerging as a key workplace issue among the people I coach. They tell me that there is a lack of will and/or skills to deal with conflict and have many theories as to why it occurs and what happens when it takes root. From being an unwelcome distraction, conflict in a team or department can quickly spread, to damage relationships, lower productivity and morale and in extreme cases lead absenteeism, sabotage, litigation and even strikes.

So why are so many people experiencing conflict at work? There are two key factors.

First, the matrix structure adopted by many organisations has resulted in unclear reporting lines, increased competition for resources and attention and general confusion as managers try to develop an appropriate management style.

Second, globalisation has caused change and restructuring so that businesses operate more flexibly. There has been a rapid growth in virtual teams, with people from different backgrounds and cultures working across vast regions and time zones. Email and electronic communication are the most practical ways to connect, but these can be anonymous and lead to misunderstanding.

In addition to matrix management styles and globalisation, there are a number of other sources of conflict, including:

  • Different cultures and assumptions
  • Differing values, opinions and beliefs
  • Lack of sensitivity to race, gender, age, class, education and ability
  • Poor people skills, especially communication
  • Volatile, fast-changing workplaces
  • Limits on resources, physical and psychological

So what are the ways to manage conflict? How can managers ensure that it does not escalate out of control? According to the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Instrument, there are five key styles for managing conflict:

  • Forcing — using your formal authority or power to satisfy your concerns without regard to the other party’s concerns
  • Accommodating — allowing the other party to satisfy their concerns while neglecting your own
  • Avoiding — not paying attention to the conflict and not taking any action to resolve it
  • Compromising — attempting to resolve the conflict by identifying a solution that is partially satisfactory to both parties but completely satisfactory to neither
  • Collaborating — co-operating with the other party to understand their concerns in an effort to find a mutually satisfying solution

Another way to look at conflict is to decide the relative importance of the issue and to consider the extent to which priorities, principles, relationships or values are at stake. Power is also an important issue – how much power do you have relative to the other person?

As a rule, I would suggest collaboration is the way to deal with important issues, although forcing can sometimes be appropriate if time is an issue. For moderately important issues, compromising can lead to quick solutions but it doesn’t satisfy either side, nor does it foster innovation, so collaboration is probably better. Accommodating is the best approach for unimportant issues as it leads to quick resolution without straining the relationship.

And lest we forget, conflict does have a positive side: it can promote collaboration, improve performance, foster creativity and innovation and build deeper relationships. As Jim Collins wrote in Good to Great, “all the good-to-great companies had a penchant for intense dialogue. Phrases like ‘loud debate’, ‘heated discussions’ and ‘healthy conflict’ peppered the articles and transcripts from all companies.” The more skilled managers become in handling differences and change without creating or getting involved in conflict, the more successful their teams and companies will become.

Are you caught in a conflict at work? What are the roots of that conflict? Do you feel that you, your manager or your colleagues are dealing with it effectively? If not, what are your suggestions?

How to manage conflict

Westend61 / Getty Images

Many people head in the opposite direction when they spot conflict in the workplace. But if you’re a manager that’s a mistake. Conflict can be healthy or unhealthy, but either way, it merits your attention.

The healthy conflict focuses on differences of opinion regarding tasks or work-related activities. It can be leveraged and facilitated for gain.

Unhealthy conflict is a kind that gets personal. It must be extinguished immediately or it jeopardizes the work environment.

5 Styles of Conflict Management:

The research work of Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann in the 1970s led to the identification of five styles of conflict and the development of a widely used self-assessment called the Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument, or TKI.

Their work suggested that we all have a preferred way to deal with conflict which serves us well in some situations, but not all. The key to success is to develop a flexible toolkit of conflict management approaches and use the one that best fits the situation.

The more you can get comfortable with each way of dealing with conflict, the more effective you will be.

Collaborating

In the collaborative approach, the manager works with the people involved to develop a win-win solution. The focus on finding a solution that meets everyone’s needs.

This style is appropriate when:

  • The situation is not urgent
  • An important decision needs to be made
  • The conflict involves many people or a number of people across teams
  • Previous conflict resolution attempts have failed

This style is not appropriate when:

  • A decision needs to be made urgently
  • The matter is trivial to all involved

Competing

With a competitive approach, the person who takes the firmest stand wins. This style is often seen as aggressive and can be the cause of others in the conflict feeling taken advantage of.

Nevertheless, this style is appropriate when:

  • A decision needs to be made quickly
  • An unpopular decision needs to be made
  • Someone is trying to take advantage of a situation

This style is not appropriate when:

  • People are feeling sensitive about the issue
  • The situation is not urgent
  • Buy-in is important

Compromising

With the compromising approach, each person gives up something that contributes towards conflict resolution.

This style is appropriate when:

  • A decision needs to be made sooner rather than later
  • Resolving the conflict is more important than having each individual win
  • Power among the people in the conflict is equal

This style is not appropriate when:

  • A variety of important needs must be met
  • The situation is extremely urgent
  • One person holds more power than another

Accommodating

The accommodating style is one of the most passive conflict resolution methods. One of the individuals gives in so that the other person can get what they want. As a rule, this style is not very effective, but it is appropriate in certain scenarios:

  • Maintaining the relationship is more important than winning
  • The issue at hand is very important to only one person

This style is not appropriate when:

  • It will not permanently solve the problem

Avoiding

The last approach is to avoid the conflict entirely. People who use this style tend to accept decisions without question, avoid confrontation, and delegate difficult decisions and tasks. Avoiding is another passive approach that is typically not effective, but it has its uses.

This style is appropriate when:

  • The issue is trivial
  • The conflict will resolve itself on its own soon

This style is not appropriate when:

  • The issue is important to you or your team
  • The conflict will grow worse without attention

The Bottom Line

There is no right or wrong style of conflict resolution. Each has its time and place. Learn how to use all five and you’ll be much more effective. As a manager, learn to suggest different approaches based on these five styles when striving to defuse conflict.

How to manage conflictGuest blogger: Cathy Bolger, Ph.D.

There are five key conflict management strategies: Postpone, Enforce, Accommodate, Compromise, and Explore.

Most people have a most preferred and least preferred strategy when handling conflict. What are yours?

1. The Postpone Strategy involves delaying discussion until a later time. At that time, you may need to adopt one of the other four strategies to manage the differences. Choose the Postpone Strategy when:

  • there are heightened emotions around the issues
  • you don’t have all the information needed

2. The Enforce Strategy involves doing what is necessary to support a non‐negotiable point of view. Choose the Enforce Strategy when:

  • you must stand firm, such as in the case of an ethics violation
  • the decision has already been made by company executives
  • quick, decisive action is crucial

3. The Accommodate Strategy involves going along with another’s viewpoint or desires. It sometimes involves giving in because you believe it is a good way to enhance or preserve the relationship. Choose the Accommodate Strategy when:

  • there is a subject matter expert who has more insight than you
  • the other party has strong ownership and it is less important to you
  • the stronger need is to preserve the relationship

4. The Compromise Strategy involves both parties agreeing to small concessions so they can resolve their differences. It is sometimes referred to as splitting the difference. Choose the Compromise Strategy when:

  • you must reach a solution soon
  • a temporary settlement to a complex issue is acceptable

5. When using the Explore Strategy, both parties work together to create and explore new ideas. Choose the Explore Strategy when:

  • you need a Win/Win resolution
  • everyone’s concerns and feeling need to be considered
  • the decision is so important that it needs everyone’s full commitment

All five strategies have their time and place. When choosing a conflict management strategy, consider the importance of the issue, the urgency of the issue and the power of the people involved.

Cathy Bolger, Ph.D. is a San Diego-based trainer, coach and author who provides professional and personal development to a wide range of companies and individuals. Her most requested trainings include Presentation Skills, Meeting Management and Facilitation Skills, and Conflict Management Skills. Contact her at [email protected] or 619-294-2511.

Whether with a colleague, friend, or family member, conflicts are a natural and inevitable part of being human. They can occur over differences of opinion and communication in goals, strategies, money, politics, and more. While they can destroy relationships when managed poorly, learning how to manage conflict in a healthy manner can actually lead to stronger relationships. But first, let’s have a look at the two emotions that drive most conflicts: anger and frustration.

The neuroscience of anger

What exactly happens inside your brain when you’re angry with someone? From a science standpoint, anger is defined as a response to a perceived threat to oneself or to another. This results in what researchers call “reactive aggression”—instead of being defensive, we go into attack mode.

While many areas of the brain are involved in anger—such as the hypothalamus and periaqueductal gray mediate—the main area that gets activated when we’re angry at someone is the amygdala. To visualise the amygdala, imagine two almond shaped clusters of nerves located right beneath your temples. The amygdala is involved in memory, decision-making and—most importantly in the case of anger—in emotional responses such as fear, anxiety, and aggression. In fact, many studies found that PTSD patients who have an increased risk for anger also had increased amygdala activity.

How to manage conflict

The amygdala is also the primary structure of the brain responsible for the fight or flight response, a physiological reaction that happens in response to a perceived harmful event or threat to our survival.

Frustration and anger are deeply linked together. Frustration happens when we keep on doing something in the expectation of a reward, but we don’t receive that reward. For example, explaining something over and over to someone, but not getting them to understand. Or trying to understand a problem, only to keep on failing. When we feel frustrated for a long time, frustration often turn into anger. So what to do about it?

Managing anger to manage conflict

Many people try to repress their feelings when they’re angry with someone. This is actually the worst thing to do. Researchers stated that “experimental studies have reported that suppression leads to less linking from social interaction partners and to an increase in partners’ blood pressure levels.”

But dwelling on it is not good either. Scientists found that focusing on a negative emotion will actually make the experience of that emotion more intense. Moreover, you will be using precious cognitive energy that would probably be better used elsewhere. So how do you manage conflict in a healthy way?

“You don’t get frustrated because of events, you get frustrated because of your beliefs.”

Albert Ellis, American psychologist and creator of the Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy.

The key to manage conflict lies in what’s called reappraisal. Imagine someone is being rude to you. Maybe they’re raising their voice, not listening to what you have to say. You feel frustrated, then angry. You want to shout back at them.

Now, imagine I told you their dad passed away yesterday. How would you feel? You’d most likely feel compassion towards them. You’d understand why they are behaving this way. Reappraisal consists in analysing your triggers and reframing your anger to think: “It’s not about me. They are having a bad day.”

In a reappraisal experiment, participants were shown a photo of people crying outside a church, which obviously made them feel sad. They were then asked to imagine the scene was a wedding, and that people in the photo were actually crying tears of joy.

When participants changed their appraisal of the event, their emotional response changed. The researchers scanned their brains and found that the chemical reactions in their brains changed too. As the lead researcher explained: “Our emotional responses ultimately flow out of our appraisals of the world, and if we can shift those appraisals, we shift our emotional responses.”

Strategies to manage conflict

Once you have been through reappraisal and feel more calm, you can apply simple conflict management strategies to de-escalate the situation.

  1. Be constructive. Explicitly show the other person that you want to resolve the conflict. Say “I would like to resolve this together.” Be honest with yourself and try to be as transparent as possible as to why you think the conflict arose in the first place.
  2. Show you care. Demonstrate how much you care about the other person. Showing vulnerability is a powerful way to connect with someone on a deeper level. Ultimately, you are both human beings who are struggling to communicate with each other. Showing you care can go a long way in having a constructive conversation.
  3. Ask questions. Don’t assume anything—try to really understand where the other person is coming from.
  4. Avoid blame. Instead of using “you”, say “I” to explain how the situation makes you feel. A judging tone will only aggravate the situation.
  5. Take your time. Do not threaten with an ultimatum. When it’s your turn to speak, slow down, pause, and reflect. It’s okay to take a break if one or both people are starting to feel angry again. Not all conflicts can be resolved with a short conversation. You can take a break by saying “I’m feeling too emotional right now, but I would love to talk about it again when I’m calmer.”

Not all conflicts can be resolved, but the process of trying to solve things can be less painful for both parties if they use reappraisal as well as these five strategies to manage conflict. It means less frustration, less anger, and better relationships.

Discover which attitude will help you to manage conflict the most at work.

The cost of conflict in the workplace can be very high. While conflict cannot be avoided, the approach to its solution makes all the difference. In this post, you learn to recognize which attitude and skills help to handle in a constructive way conflict in the workplace.

According to the report “Workplace Conflict and How Businesses Can Harness It to Thrive,” the following statistics demonstrate how pervasive conflict is in the workplace:

  • 85 percent of employees deal with conflict on some level
  • 29 percent of employees deal with it almost constantly
  • 34 percent of conflict occurs among front-line employees
  • 12 percent of employees say they frequently witness conflict among the senior team
  • 49 percent of conflict is a result of personality clashes and “warring egos”
  • 34 percent of conflict is caused by stress in the workplace
  • 33 percent of conflict is caused by heavy workloads
  • 27 percent of employees have witnessed conflicts lead to personal attacks
  • 25 percent of employees have seen conflict result in sickness or absence
  • 9 percent have seen workplace conflict cause a project to fail

Why is there conflict in the workplace?

Conflict in the workplace is a shared experience.

Discriminatory practices, lousy performance reviews, customs dissatisfaction, personality clashes, all contribute to a challenging working environment.

It is not uncommon to hear employees complaining about the management style of their boss. Or to learn about rivalries among peers.

In short, the interdependent nature of teams and organizations, the competitive if not incompatible goals and interests, and a perceived scarcity of resources can be at the root of a conflict in the workplace.

And yet, the presence of conflict is not in itself a problem.

The two attitudes towards conflict

What marks the outcome of a conflict in the workplace is the attitude.

A pioneer in conflict resolution, the late social psychologist Morton Deutsch has identified two central attitudes that we develop when confronted with a conflict.

I remember the master class, which professor Deutsch gave at Columbia University in the fall of 2000. Engaging with graduate students for two hours, he summarized a lifelong commitment to peace and conflict resolution.

He said that if we were to understand the two attitudes to conflict and the impact they can make on the life of an organization, we had in our hands the key to making a meaningful impact.

When conflict is all about winning or losing

Morton Deutch explained that one approach to conflict is competition. Parties in a conflict perceive conflict as a zero-sum game. There has to be a loser to be a winner. For me to continue swimming, the other needs to sink.

Some of the traits of a competitive approach to a conflict are the following:

  • Impaired communication
  • Obstructiveness
  • Lack of help
  • Constant disagreements
  • One’s power is enhanced when the power of the other is reduced

This attitude encourages a destructive pattern of the conflict. It can lead to a downward spiral of performance and results.

A better way to handle conflict in the workplace

The opposite attitude to conflict is cooperation.

It is an approach that recognizes the interdependence of the relations, and it frames conflict as an opportunity to improve performance, communication, and relationships.

Rather than a zero-sum game, conflict becomes a win-win opportunity. There is a shared belief that everyone is better off if no one sinks, but all instead are allowed to swim.

When cooperation marks the approach to conflict, then the following behavioral patterns are observed:

  • Effective communication
  • Helpfulness
  • Trust
  • Coordination of efforts
  • Reciprocal respect
  • Conflicting interests are defined as a mutual problem to be solved

To maintain a cooperative approach is not easy when confronted with conflict. It is easy to be defensive and fearful, or aggressive and even angry when we perceive that our interests, our role, or even our reputation is at stake.

This is why organizations are investing more and more in sound conflict management and conflict coaching training.

To be able to maintain a high-performance under stressful circumstances cannot be left to improvisation and to chance. Top performers always train their mental grit for the most challenging moments.

The difference that makes the difference

When I work with clients or when I facilitate a leadership training, I always put forward an invitation: What if we look at conflict not as a problem to be solved, but as an invitation for personal and organizational growth?

As long as we see conflict as a problem to be fixed, we operate from the same level at which the conflict was created.

Instead, when we see conflict as an opportunity to be bigger and better, we are challenged to rise to a new quality of thoughts, emotions, behaviors; we are invited to develop further references and to update our values and our beliefs. Ultimately, we are encouraged to upgrade our self-image.

When we recognize in conflict the opportunity for change and transformation, eventually we elevate and expand our identity.

This way, we recognize that underneath the conflict that is a future that wants to emerge. That is, there is a potential that wants to be expressed, a reality that wants to be generated.

In other words, a conflict can be the most precious gift that happens to our personal lives and the life of our organizations.