Conflict at Work – Good or Bad?

Conflict is such an integral part of human behaviour that it’s difficult to avoid.  When conflict happens in the workplace and it’s handled constructively it can be turned into a learning opportunity and catalyst for change.  Differing opinions create innovation. It would be a very boring world if everyone had the same ideas.  However, not all conflict is good.

So, what should we do when we are faced with unhealthy conflict at work?

Decide whether the conflict needs to be resolved

Ignoring conflict completely tends to end in tears sooner or later. The situation may fester and, over time, escalate into an unmanageable situation.  Conversely, the phrase ‘pick your battles’ can also be a good guiding principle. To decide whether action is required it may be helpful to ask:

  1. How important is it to win this battle?
  2. What is the goal?
  3. Is achieving the goal important or trivial?
  4. Why is it important?
  5. What would happen if the battle was lost?
  6. Could the goal be achieved in a different way?

This phase is about discovering the driver behind the way we feel, whether it is worth winning and knowing when to let go.

Identify why the conflict has happened

Disagreements at work may fall broadly into the following categories:

  1. What the work outcome should be.
  2. How a work outcome should be achieved.
  3. When it should be achieved by.
  4. Who the decision maker(s) should be.
  5. Personality clashes (either as a sole reason or as a result of one of the above)

Decide how to reach a resolution

Typical behavioural styles for dealing with conflict include:

  1. Collaborative:  most appropriate when the decision is important but not time bound or if it involves a team. It involves taking everyone’s views into consideration and ensuring everyone feels part of the decision making process.
  2. Competing: most appropriate when an unpopular or urgent decision is needed. This is where one person makes the decision regardless of anyone else’s views.
  3. Accommodating: most appropriate when resolving the conflict is more important than winning. This is where one person accommodates the other person’s feelings and goes along with their view.
  4. Avoiding: most appropriate when the issue is trivial and will resolve itself. Leaving things to sort themselves out can sometimes allow things to fester so it’s important to give due consideration to what the outcome may be and periodically review what action may be needed.

We may recognise our default style from the list above. We might need to adapt our style depending on the precise circumstances.

We can also decide whether to resolve the situation:

  1. Directly: by taking control of the situation personally; or
  2. Indirectly: by asking another person or people to assist.  This could include hiring an external mediator or HR Consultant.

As a last resort we could remove ourselves from situation.  This could include moving into another team, not continuing with a project or resigning completely.

To minimise the risk of unhealthy conflict at work organisations should consider having:

  1. written policies and procedures including IT, communications, disciplinary rules, anti-bullying and harassment, positive workplace behaviours
  2. well written and current job descriptions
  3. competency frameworks
  4. awareness sessions to ensure everyone understands what is expected of them
  5. clear process maps including who is responsible for key decisions
  6. regular performance management sessions
  7. clear and well communicated career paths
  8. a transparent reward policy

All organisations should also have written and well communicated grievance and disciplinary procedures.

The emphasis should always be on sorting things out informally at the earliest possible stage.

A note on communication when seeking a resolution

Don’t: have an ad hoc, hurried conversation in the middle of the office where things can be overheard and interrupted.

Do: arrange a meeting in a setting free from work distractions. Ask someone else along if it makes you feel more comfortable.

Don’t: Accuse the other person e.g. You always criticise me.

Do: Apologise and use neutral and objective language e.g. I’ve noticed that we often disagree. I’m really sorry if I’ve upset you.

Do: Recognise the other person’s contribution. e.g. I know we disagree on many points but I really do appreciate your contribution to the project.

Do: Let the other person know that you want to sort things out.

Do: Say what you would like the outcome to be and ask the other person what they would like the outcome to be so that you can come to a shared understanding.

A final note about the photo

You may be wondering why I chose this photo of an unfinished mansion.   To me this building represents the result of hundreds of years of conflict of various kinds.  The building was originally designed as a safe haven for catholic worship which was frowned upon at the time.  When the original owner died his son became involved in the gunpowder plot and was executed in the Tower of London.  Left to deterioriate, it is ironic that a later conflict (an aerial photo taken from the air during WWII)  revealed the historic significance of the house and gardens.  (see previous blog post)

See you next time.

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