Workplace conflict is common. With many different motivations, personalities and priorities sloshing around in your workplace bucket, it’s no surprise.
Workplace conflict can happen when people can’t get what they want or aren’t treated with respect. It can arise through a personality clash, or even between people with similar styles who simply want different things.
There is little point in trying to create a perfect environment where there is no workplace conflict. It is inevitable. However, we don’t need to fear it, or run away from it.
We can handle workplace conflict constructively and work through it to come out even stronger than before.
Workplace Conflict and the Role of Leaders
Leaders need to be able to deal with conflict. They may be involved in the conflict themselves and have to work through it. Or, they may need to resolve conflict occurring in their teams, or between colleagues in their workplace.
Leaders are well-placed to resolve conflict because they have the authority and respect (hopefully!) to be able to bring people together. They also need to set the example for others around them.
If leaders are continuously engaging in conflict rather than working to resolve it, others will see this as normal and acceptable behaviour.
Leaders need to be at the forefront of resolving conflict, even if they themselves are part of it.
Principles For Resolving Workplace Conflict
Conflict is never pleasant, but as an inevitable part of working life, we need to be able to overcome it. Here are some principles that have helped me to do that in my career.
Try them for yourself, and comment below with any others you’d like to add.
#1. Keep Talking
When conflict occurs, the natural instinct for some people is to avoid the person involved.
I know I have certainly had situations where I would rather not work with someone ever again. Unfortunately, this usually isn’t possible!
Avoidance might mean ignoring messages or opting out of meetings where they are in attendance.
The problem with this approach is that there is no way to move forward without interacting.
It might feel good not to have to speak to this person any more, but every so often you’ll come in contact in some way, and the old feelings will still be there.
You’ll be stuck in a time warp, ruminating about something that might have happened long ago.
If you don’t keep talking, there is no chance of reconciliation or resolution. Sometimes, you need to be the “bigger person” and initiate the conversation, even when you don’t feel like it.
#2. Build Trust
If we stick to point #1, we can start on point #2 which is about building trust in the relationship. Conflict often occurs when people feel hard done by or betrayed. People may have a tendency to hit back, based on a prior conflict which they haven’t been able to let go.
Think of someone you trust. You’ve probably had a disagreement with them at one time or another. Did it destroy the relationship altogether? Or did you work through it?
I find that trust is built in small increments over time. Little by little, with small actions that add up.
It’s harder to trust somebody you’ve just met, because you only have a few data points to use. If you only have three interactions with this person, how can you be sure that the fourth won’t be a bad one?
Conversely, if you’ve had a thousand positive interactions with somebody, you’ll gain comfort that the next ones are going to be good too.
Of course, you need to be trustworthy too. Conflict is easier to resolve when people trust you, even if they don’t agree with you right now.
To assess trustworthiness, I like to use this handy “Trust equation” by Trusted Advisor.
Use it to assess your trustworthiness and see if there are areas where you could benefit from making some improvements.
#3. See Both Sides
Often when I see conflict, it’s because both parties don’t quite understand where the other person is coming from.
It can be even worse if the people involved *aren’t even interested* in finding out about the other person’s position.
It might feel easier to simply fight for your own goals or priorities, without considering others.
Sometimes people can be so bitter or angry about the conflict that they aren’t even able to engage in civil conversation. In these cases, some sort of independent facilitator might be required.
At any rate, without understanding the other side, it’s impossible to see any common ground, or ways that you might be able to compromise to create more of a “win-win” situation.
It’s harder to dislike somebody when you see where they are coming from.
#4. Get Closure
Some conflicts don’t have a happy resolution for both sides. One person may get their way, and the other may miss out.
In this case, it’s important that everyone has closure. That is, they understand the end result. Even if they don’t agree, they know where they stand.
Without this step, it’s easy to have unresolved conflict that festers. People may believe they’ll eventually get what they want, even if it’s not a realistic outcome.
This can keep tension simmering for a long time, even when some people might think the issue is over and done with.
The takeaway here is to be clear when a conflict cannot be resolved with a win-win, for both parties. Then people can move on with their lives.
#5. Don’t Take Yourself So Seriously
I’ve stolen this one from the great Ben Zander. You can see his video about Rule #6 here.
Rule #6 is:
“Don’t take yourself so seriously”.
This is a rule that is well worth remembering in the workplace. Often we can get revved up about workplace conflict, with tension and emotion escalating as everyone beats their chests to achieve their own goals.
Don’t take yourself so seriously, and encourage others to remember this rule too.
When we take ourselves too seriously, we forget the fun and enjoyment and we tend to focus on pain and negative emotions.
“How DARE they do this to ME?“
Workplace conflict thrives under these conditions.
Another great resource I like to use for reframing conflict is shown in this cartoon by Liz and Mollie.
In other words, this conflict might seem like a big deal right now, but over time it will most probably fade into insignificance.
Well worth remembering, before you take all that pent up stress and emotion with you to the grave.
Resolving workplace conflict is never easy, but I like to keep these principles in mind to help tackle it.
You’ll never avoid it altogether, but you can learn from it and be better for it afterwards.