Conflict in the workplace is inevitable! Whenever two or more people work together there are bound to be different values, goals and motives, as well as misunderstandings, hurt feelings and unmet expectations. This may sound depressing, but accepting this reality, and acting to resolve conflicts quickly, is critical for keeping your team focused.
Conflict is like the tip of an iceberg. It’s the visible manifestation of fear, frustration, loss of control and other feelings that may be seen as threatening.l
Conflict is not all bad. When it prompts people to explore new ways of thinking and more options, it can be beneficial. It is unproductive when its effect on people and the organization undermines mutual respect and trust, diverts people’s energies from accomplishing their goals, creates “win-lose” situations, and undermines cooperation.
How do people deal with conflict? It depends on their level of assertiveness, willingness to cooperate, stake in the matter, and the nature of those involved in the conflict. While you might be assertive when you have a disagreement with your child, you might be much less assertive with someone who’s pressing a loaded gun to your temples. If the issue is about which journal the company library should subscribe to, you’ll probably be less assertive than about which team you want to lead. There’s more at stake with the team decision.
Assertiveness and Cooperation
When people are unassertive and uncooperative, they tend to avoid conflict. They typically lack the skills to problem-solve with others for a creative, mutually acceptable resolution. They may even deny that there is an issue. They lose, and so do others, because the issue isn’t confronted and resolved.
When people are unassertive, but cooperative, they tend to take the “no problem” approach. “If that’s what you want, no problem. I’ll do that.” They want peace and harmony more than they want the best solution.
When people are highly assertive, but uncooperative, they try to win at all costs. They won’t accept a compromise. “I’m right! Therefore you must be wrong (and don’t you forget it)!”
When people are highly assertive and cooperative, they tend to seek creative solutions. They know what they want and are willing to work with others to achieve a solution in which everyone wins.
In confronting conflict, the goal is to create situations where issues are resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, and where they believe that they have all benefited from working together. Then the organization, and everyone in it, is better off because the conflict was resolved creatively. Here are some specific recommendations:
1. As an organization, establish a set of values which clearly communicate that:
- Conflict is natural, and can be healthy when approached with mutual respect.
- Confronting conflict is to be welcomed as an expression of caring.
- It’s not only OK, but desirable, for people to have differing views.
- Conflicts should be resolved as informally, early and peacefully as possible.
- The goal of conflict resolution is to develop creative solutions that enable everyone to benefit from the process.
- Efforts to resolve conflict that create “win-lose” situations are inconsistent with the organization’s values, and will be used only if other means fail.
2. Accept the inevitability of conflict. Discuss how you want to approach it with the people with whom you work. Then when a conflict arises, harken back to your discussion and agreement. This facilitates dealing with the issue because you have a common prior understanding of how to handle conflict.
3. As an organization, establish a conflict-resolution process to use when informal efforts don’t work. The following process attempts to change a “head-to-head” confrontation into “side-by-side” problem solving between equals:
- First, ask each party to describe the conflict as they see it.
- Then, determine the points of agreement between the parties.
- Isolate the points of disagreement.
- Have each party state its position, reasons for it and why it is important to them.
- Have each party describe, in their own words, the position of the other parties.
- Have the parties develop a consolidated statement of the core issues.
- Ask each party to state what they would consider to be a satisfactory resolution.
- Have the parties brainstorm ways everyone’s needs can be met.
- Have the parties narrow the brainstormed alternatives to the top few, and evaluate them.
- Create a consensus for which alternative to adopt. If that can’t be achieved, refer the recommendations of the parties to a higher level for a decision.
4. Most conflicts, especially misunderstandings or hurt feelings, can be resolved on an informal basis if confronted immediately. The longer the time between an incident and a confrontation, the more difficult the confrontation is because of built-up feelings.
5. Some conflicts are more difficult to resolve because an event has happened, and you cannot turn the clock back. Even if you can’t change history it may be valuable to confront it to: (a) “get a load off your chest,” and (b) reduce the chance of a repeat incident. When a conflict eats away at you, it does you no good. Even if it can’t be resolved, the act of expressing how it has affected you generally makes you feel better. Especially if the conflict is based on a misunderstanding, it’s important to confront the situation to reduce the chance of it happening again.
6. When you confront someone, first plan what you want to accomplish, and how you want to accomplish it. Your chances of accomplishing your objectives are better with forethought. Also, it may help to discuss your thoughts with a trusted friend or confidant who can help you focus on your objectives and comment on your approach.
7. When you confront someone, cite what has happened, its effects on you and others, and your desire to resolve the situation.
- “I need to talk with you for a few minutes about something that’s bothering me. I’ve thought about it and decided that it’s better for us to discuss it, than for me to let it eat away at me.”
- “This morning in front of my team, you bawled me out for not getting the Jones order out by 3:00 p.m. yesterday. I understand how important it is to you for us to meet our commitments, but bawling me out in front of other people demeans me. If I looked unhappy it was because I was astounded and disappointed that you would chew me out in front of others.”
- Then express what you consider to be an appropriate resolution of the conflict.
- “We cannot turn the clock back and do things differently. Nor will it help either of us for you to apologize to me in front of my team. In all probability there may be times in the future when you take issue with what I have or have not done. What I would like is your commitment that whenever you take issue again with my actions that you will talk with me in private. Can you live with that?”
- End by thanking the person for his or her time, consideration and cooperation.
- Whether or not you come to agreement, thank the other person for having expressed his or her views and feelings. He/she took a personal risk in confronting you. It was an expression of trust and caring that he/she would confront you.
8. There may be times when you are confronted. The first rule is to control your temper and listen, listen, listen. You can’t control what the other person says, but you can control how you respond. When someone confronts you, it’s natural to feel at least a little defensive, but defensiveness only makes it more difficult to resolve a conflict.
- Listen to what the person has to say until he or she has nothing left to say. Then, but not one minute before, he or she is ready to listen. The fact that you’ve listened attentively, without interruption, enhances your position and builds a debt of gratitude on the part of the other person who will now listen to you.
- When you start speaking, summarize first your understanding of what the other person has said. (Carl Rogers, the noted behavioral scientist, urges not to argue until you can restate the other person’s position in your own words to his or her satisfaction.) Then summarize your points of agreement. That helps build a bond. When you discuss points of disagreement, recognize that reasonable people can see the same thing from different perspectives. Say, “Let me tell you how I saw that,” and proceed to explain your viewpoint. The more open-minded and non-defensive you are, the more open-minded and non-defensive the other person will be.
As stated earlier, conflict is natural in an organization. When it can be surfaced and confronted, there’s a chance of resolving it. If it’s present, but doesn’t surface, it can become a preoccupation that drains the organization’s talents non-productively and destroys some of its people. Even though confrontation has risks, it’s far better for everyone to confront conflict and resolve it creatively.
Note from Nicole: if conflict arises please do not hesitate to contact me in order to help you resolve it. As mentioned in the article, the sooner you approach conflict the easier it is to resolve it. You know how to reach me: email at email@example.com.
Return to the Human Resources Toolkit