Conflict at Work

You can demonstrate leadership by effectively handling conflict in the workplace

By David Cox, SPHR, SHRM-SCP | August 10, 2017

Conflict is a normal part of human interaction, but the challenge of conflict lies in how we choose to resolve it.  Whether we conceal, avoid or otherwise ignore conflict, it will likely grow into resentment, create dissension, or create factions within an organization.

So, what creates conflict in the workplace?  Opposing positions, competitive tensions, power struggles, ego, pride, jealousy, performance discrepancies, compensation issues, just someone having a bad day, etc.  The reality is that the root of most conflict can be attributed to either poor communication or an inability to control our emotions.  Let’s consider these two major causes of conflict:

If you reflect on the conflicts you’ve had over the years, you’ll probably recognize many of them resulted from a lack of information, poor information, no information, or misinformation.  Clear, concise, accurate, and timely communication of information will help to reduce both the number and severity of conflicts.

Another common factor that often results in conflict is letting emotions drive decisions.  I have seen successful employers place the need for emotional superiority ahead of achieving their mission (not that they always understood this at the time).  Likewise, have you ever seen an employee throw a fit or draw a line in the sand in the heat of the moment?  If you have, what you really watched was a person choosing to indulge their emotions rather than protecting their future.

The following tips will help to more effective handle conflicts in the workplace:

  1. Define Acceptable Behavior: Just having a definition for what constitutes acceptable behavior is a positive step in avoiding conflict. Having clearly defined job descriptions so that people know what’s expected of them and a well-articulated chain of command to allow for effective communication will help avoid conflicts. Clear expectations of what will and won’t be tolerated serves everyone well.
  2. Attack conflict: While you can’t always prevent conflicts, it has been my experience that the secret to conflict resolution is in fact conflict prevention where possible. Time spent identifying and understanding natural tensions will help to avoid unnecessary conflict.
  3. Understanding the WIIFM Factor: Understanding the other employee’s or employer’s WIIFM (What’s in It for Me) position is critical. It is essential to understand the motivations of others.  Don’t ignore this important factor.  If you are uncertain, don’t hesitate to ask.  The best way to avoid conflict is to help those around you achieve their objectives.
  4. Importance: Pick your battles and avoid conflict for the sake of conflict. However, if the issue is important enough to create a conflict then it is surely important enough to resolve.
  5. View Conflict as Opportunity: Hidden within virtually every conflict is the potential for a tremendous teaching/learning opportunity. Where there is disagreement, there is an inherent potential for growth and development.

Compromise, forgiveness, compassion, empathy, finding common ground, being an active listener, service above self, and numerous other approaches will usually allow one to be successful in building rapport.   If the underlying desire is strong enough and the parties are sincere, a resolution to conflicts can normally be found.

David Cox


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