You’ll spend a significant amount of time at work seeing the same people every day. Ideally, you enjoy spending time with your workplace acquaintances, and you can work together well. But even the strongest relationships have frayed ends, and you (usually!) don’t get to choose the people you work with. Eventually, there will be conflict.
A hectic project may bring out the choler, or your teammate may have a contradictory work style to yours. Maybe you and your boss don’t see eye-to-eye on your salary negotiation, or maybe someone simply keeps eating your lunch. No matter what form it may appear in, workplace conflict is unavoidable.
However, conflict is not always something negative. Conflict can be a catalyst for growth. According to organizational communication scholars Stanley Deetz and Sheryl Stevenson:
“(a) conflict is natural; (b) conflict is good and necessary; and (c) most conflicts are based on real differences” -Deetz and Stevenson (1986)
With help from leadership and workplace experts across the globe, we’ll examine the nature of conflict, recognize that conflict doesn’t have to be hostile, and learn how to effectively navigate the murky waters of workplace conflict.
Conflict itself isn’t a bad thing
As the aforementioned communication scholars have noted, conflict is both natural and necessary. It’s impossible to imagine a group of people in any setting that won’t eventually have a difference of opinion and clash.
“As with any place full of interpersonal relationships, a workplace can be rife with a wide range of conflicts. There are the work-specific problems related to promotions, salary disparity, lack of recognition for achievement, or shared responsibility among a team. There are also more general issues with personal space and privacy; and then there are plain old personality conflicts.” –Rita Friedman, Career Coach
The first instinct many have is to avoid the conflict and hope it passes so as not to create a hostile environment. Yet this denies an opportunity for growth and understanding. By leaving the cause of a conflict in the dark, a solution can never come to light. Imagine a colleague always talks over you in meetings, leaving your ideas on the sidelines. By staying silent, you may never get your chance to have your voice heard.
Libby Calaby believes without a strong leader willing to step in as an unbiased adjudicator, a team will eventually tear itself apart. A third party can help, but an understanding that conflict is necessary and that it doesn’t need to be antagonistic can empower you to take charge.
Conflict doesn’t have to be hostile
The biggest myth of conflict is that conflict is always a hostile act. You don’t need to call your coworker out in front of everyone and put them on the spot or come up with some elaborate revenge plot.
Think of conflict simply as a disagreement. A conflict may sound severe but we have disagreements all the time, right? If I want to go out for tacos but you’d rather get a pizza, that’s not such a big deal, is it? We may have a little debate about the merits of each, and ultimately both of us won’t get our way, but that’s not something cataclysmic.
Putting conflict into this perspective makes it easier to handle conversations a bit more easily. Nexxt’s Alexander Richardson offers the example of negotiations with your boss. You may want something from your boss, a raise, or a day off, and assume your boss is against you. You may believe yourself to be in conflict with your boss, and you may be right, but that doesn’t mean you’re at odds. Think of the opportunity as negotiation and you’ll get the best results.
Job Negotiation Tip: Know that negotiation is different from conflict. It's more about compromising.
— Nexxt (@NexxtJobs) November 16, 2021
How to handle workplace conflicts
With a better understanding that conflict is necessary for growth and that it doesn’t need to be aggressive, how can we handle workplace conflicts in a respectful manner? The experts at Small Biz Viewpoints, Robert Half, and Advanced Leadership Consulting each have their ideas on how to handle the process. These tips fall into three broad categories to get you started.
1. Be proactive
Don’t let a conflict fester or snowball out of control. You can often stop conflict before it happens by checking in with your peers and asking for simple feedback, writes Carl Robinson of Advanced Leadership Consulting.
He adds that, while recognizing conflict is inevitable, you want to establish conflict resolution procedures in advance. “Think of the procedures as ground rules for behavior within and outside the team. Don’t wait for the conflict to happen before establishing ground rules for navigating conflict.”
2. Be respectful
Stick to the facts and don’t make a conflict feel personal. Keep the argument on the issue at hand. This prevents the other party from immediately feeling defensive or attacked, and they’ll be far more willing to listen to what you have to say.
“Be mindful during the resolution process, you should use neutral terms and display open body language with all of the employees involved. For this reason, you should focus on the events and behaviors instead of the personalities.” -Small Biz Viewpoints
Chances are, you won’t reach a perfect solution for both parties involved. Learning how to compromise is key. While it may feel like you’re conceding or giving up, learning how to give and take is vital for growth and to move past a disagreement. Robert Half believes “[D]iplomacy is based on tradeoffs and finding an acceptable middle ground. Aim to create a win-win situation where both parties walk away gaining something.”
Even in the best company culture, even if you adore your coworkers, conflicts will happen. Keeping perspective in these conflicts is necessary to gain an understanding and come to an amicable solution. You may not always “win” your conflicts, but by realizing that conflict is necessary and can be positive, and understanding how to handle conflicts, you’ll come away without losing or damaging your workplace relationships. But either way, don’t eat your coworkers’ lunch. That’s just impolite.