Conflict is a normal part of the workplace. It can arise whenever there is miscommunication or a difference in ideas or opinions between two or more people. Although avoiding conflict may seem like the easiest way to deal with a potentially uncomfortable situation, it will likely not go away-and may even cause the conflict to escalate. However, if conflict is dealt with proactively and effectively, it can resolve the situation and also lead to professional and personal growth.
Since unresolved conflicts can hinder cooperation and collaboration in the workplace, this can lead to a decline in creativity and overall loss of productivity. This is obviously highly undesirable to both the employer as well as employees, who may seek employment elsewhere due to the resulting negative environment. Developing effective conflict resolution skills is therefore an essential component to success in the workplace.
Many conflicts arise from misunderstandings or breakdowns in communication. Be proactive: clearly communicate your intentions to others. You may simply be trying to help a colleague, but they may interpret it as you thinking they aren’t capable of doing it themselves. Don’t assume they will know the intent behind your actions.
One communication method that is frequently used in the workplace, and where intention can be difficult to interpret, is email. Unlike face-to-face communication, the tone of an email or its intention can be difficult to interpret without the accompanying non-verbal cues. Depending on the circumstances, an email intending to provide constructive feedback can be interpreted by the recipient as overly critical or a personal insult. If possible, deliver constructive feedback in person, supported by appropriate positive body language. If it must be by email, an upbeat introductory statement such as "I hope your morning has been good!" can help to communicate the email’s positive intent and reduce the likelihood of misinterpretation.
Despite best intentions and effort, sometimes conflict can’t be avoided. Approaching conflict directly in a constructive manner is important as it prevents tension from building in severity and magnitude. Let’s look at some important strategies that can be used to de-escalate a conflict.
For tips on how to successfully approach uncomfortable conversations, check out this article by Forbes.
Here are some tips for handling workplace conflict competently and successfully:
What do you need to do to resolve the conflict? Think about past successes in resolving conflict. Determine the steps needed in this situation and develop a plan. Write it down. Then, follow through with it: keep yourself reliable and accountable. This will lay the foundation to having strong conflict resolution skills.
If you have an issue with someone, go to them directly. When someone shares their concern about a co-worker with another co-worker rather than discussing it with the person they have the conflict with, it can cause the conflict to worsen. If you are uncertain about how to deal with the situation, it may be appropriate to get advice from your manager.
Triangulating occurs when someone shares their concern about a co-worker with another co-worker rather than discussing it with the person they have the conflict with. This is similar to gossip, and is disrespectful of your co-worker. It also doesn’t help resolve the issue. And, if your co-worker learns of your conversation about them, the original conflict may well escalate.
Be professional. If you have an issue with someone, go to them directly. If you are really uncertain how to deal with the situation, it may be appropriate to discuss it with your manager for advice.
Speaking with your co-worker while maintaining an open mind is crucial. Listen respectfully to their point of view and perspective before you form your own opinions and judgement. When it is your turn, calmly explain how you see the situation and how it makes you feel.
It is important to focus on the situation itself – not the person. Focus on the facts, actions and events that have happened. This allows the other person the opportunity to see the role they have played in the situation and, perhaps, change their attitude and behaviour.
This helps to avoid the appearance of blaming, which often results in defensiveness-a barrier to resolution.
“When you say x, I feel y, and this results in z.”
Recognize that many people, in the heat of the moment, will say things they may not necessarily mean, or it may come out more harshly than intended. Don’t take it personally. If you need to, walk away from the situation for 20 minutes before coming back to it. This allows you to gather your thoughts and composure before engaging in a constructive conversation.
When approaching a disagreement with a co-worker, it is important to be an active listener. When they’re explaining their point of view, listen more and say less. This allows you to fully understand the situation in its entirety.
Do not listen with the intention of coming up with a response to disprove their point. Rather, listen with the intent of trying to understand their perspective and empathize with them
Showing that you genuinely care and want to resolve the conflict to the satisfaction of both parties is one way to quickly de-escalate the situation. Most people are just looking to feel heard and understood. When this is achieved, barriers to resolution, such as defensiveness and frustration, often dissolve.
Let’s face it: we can’t always have our way, and we may need to meet in the middle. It ultimately comes down to whether you value being right versus whether you value the relationship that you have with your co-worker. Consider the extent to which the relationship is at risk. Ask yourself questions such as, ‘How important is this issue to me and is it worth damaging or losing a relationship over?”
There will be times when it becomes apparent that the fault lies with you. When this happens, it is important to acknowledge your mistake and apologize. Don’t try to come up with an excuse or place blame elsewhere. Instead, you should make an effort to apologize genuinely.
There are six elements of an effective apology. An effective apology will incorporate as many of the six elements as possible:
There are five different conflict styles. An outline of these five styles appears below, along with a brief discussion of the benefits and drawbacks of each style. Typically, a collaborating style is considered to be the most effective.
A person using an avoidance conflict style will evade the conflict or postpone discussing it. They may avoid talking to the person they have a conflict with and choose not to voice their concerns or frustrations.
Benefits: This style can be appropriate when the issue is trivial, or you need more time to think about the issue before discussing it with the other person.
Drawbacks: The conflict remains unaddressed, and this may lead to a build-up of negative emotions in the person who is avoiding the conflict.
This conflict style is characterized by an assertive or aggressive approach to conflict. A person with this style pushes for their own viewpoint and discredits the perspectives of others. A person with a competing style takes a firm stance on an issue and refuses to change their mind.
Benefits: This style is useful when you need to defend your rights or argue against something that is morally wrong. It is also useful when a quick decision needs to be made.
Drawbacks: This style does not allow for the possibility that the other person may be right and risks damaging the relationship.
A person with an accommodating conflict style puts the concerns of other people above their own concerns and abandons their own needs or desires in order to satisfy the other person.
Benefits: This style is useful when the issue is not a major concern for you and can be used to maintain a harmonious relationship with the other person.
Drawbacks: You may feel victimized due to the fact that your own concerns are not being acknowledged by the other person.
A person with a compromising style tries to find a solution that can be seen as the middle ground between the two sides. Both sides are left partially satisfied but also partially dissatisfied.
Benefits: Can be used when a deadline is approaching, and a temporary decision needs to be made to help move beyond an impasse.
Drawbacks: May lead to poor results.
A person with a collaborating conflict style looks for a solution that will address the needs of both people. Rather than the middle ground approach of the compromising style, the collaborating style looks for a satisfying solution that both parties can be happy with.
Benefits: This approach helps to encourage better teamwork, maintains positive relationships, and leads to stronger results. It incorporates all perspectives into the solution.
Drawbacks: This approach can be time-consuming and requires a lot of effort to adequately reconcile the differences between people in conflict.
How you view a conflict situation is key. Look at conflict as an opportunity to grow rather than something to avoid. It gives you the chance to broaden your workplace knowledge by seeing and understanding the perspectives of other people. This, in turn, helps you develop stronger teamwork skills and increases your ability to empathize with others. Also, since conflict is common in the workplace, you will become more effective at resolving it—much to the satisfaction of your employer!
Resources offered by the Centre for Work-Integrated Learning for University of Waterloo students:
PD 7 Conflict Resolution provides more in-depth information on the topic of conflict resolution.
PD 3 Communication focuses on effective communication in the workplace—which can aid in preventing conflict from arising in the first place.
Sometimes, even an apparent dream job doesn’t work out for one reason or another. If you find yourself questioning whether this is the right job for you after all, try not to quit prematurely. Give yourself and the organization time to get to know each other, because first impressions, while formed quickly, aren’t always accurate.
Depending on the situation, you might want to meet with your manager to discuss your concerns. If your concerns have to do with the duties of the job itself, there may be room to alter them. If, on the other hand, your dissatisfaction stems from incompatibility between you and the organizational culture, you may need to move on. Be as diplomatic and positive as possible when communicating your decision to leave so that you depart on the best possible terms.
If you are in a co-op or work-integrated learning experience, try to make the best of the situation: you are there for only a short period of time. Consider it a learning experience and make note of what to look for or to avoid in the future. An exception to this is if your concern is related to harassment, discrimination or another serious situation. In any of these scenarios, you should seek support immediately. Your co-op advisor can work with you to navigate the situation.