Dealing with Conflict in the Workplace

Whenever groups of people gather, conflicts happen. Today’s workplace, with its hierarchical structure, power relationships and increased workloads, can be a breeding ground for conflict.

Conflict at work is not always full of raised voices and name-calling. It can be a niggling irritant that may simmer for years between co-workers.

The media tend to focus on the extreme and violent cases – the “going postal” syndrome. Yet more commonly, staff tend to endure quiet conflicts that may result in an argument then return to normal – just for a time.

When conflicts go unresolved for long periods of time, the company suffers. Workers experience stress, depression and burn out as well as reduced job satisfaction. Productivity is compromised too, when work mates cease to collaborate. Absenteeism and turnover risk increases when workers avoid ongoing conflicts by taking “mental health” days.

Keith, a director of information technology with a large Alberta engineering firm, was experiencing the byproducts of a conflict firsthand. Usually he got along well with co-workers. But recently, tensions had begun to mount between himself and Martha, a manager of IT projects. The two shared staff for company projects. Martha had stopped returning Keith’s emails and phone calls.

Keith decided to confront Martha. He asked her to return his emails and phone calls. She stonewalled. Keith telephoned to follow-up on their conversation a day later. Martha still didn’t respond.

In our practice, we are often asked how to resolve such conflicts, as they can evolve into a serious threat to a company’s health. A frequent casualty in workplace feuds is trust between workers and the free flow of information through the organization. Conflicts create information bottlenecks when suspicious, vengeful and scared employees refuse to talk to one another or share knowledge.

Symptoms of unresolved conflict include hoarding data, withdrawing from conversation with others, or giving people the silent treatment. Tactics such as snide remarks, back stabbing, blaming and deliberately ignoring the person involved are indications that remedial action is necessary.

Workers tend to handle conflict in one of five ways, according to Kenneth Thomas, former professor of business administration at the University of Pittsburgh and Ralph Kilmann, professor of business administration at the University of Pittsburgh. They may:

  • Compete: Use power like rank or intellectual ability to put their concerns first.
  • Accommodate: Neglect their own concerns to satisfy others by being selfless and yielding to others’ needs.
  • Avoid: Postpone, sidestep or withdraw from a difficult situation.
  • Collaborate: Attempt to work with another to find a solution that satisfies everyone. Dig into the issue with another to explore the roots of the problem.
  • Compromise: Find the middle ground that partially satisfies both parties. Workers may fall back on one of these conflict styles. Generally, women use accommodation and avoidance more than men, who tend to rely on competing and compromising to settle disputes.

    Depending on the situation, any one of the conflict styles may be helpful. For example, sometimes it is better to avoid a confrontation through diplomacy than delve into issues collaboratively. On other occasions, putting one’s concerns forward may be the best way to solve a difficult situation so that co-workers know where they stand.

    Problems develop when workers use one style in almost every situation they encounter. Knowing what method to use, and when, in dealing with conflict is the best approach.

    Conflict resolution requires non-defensive communication skills. The ability to de-personalize tops the list. View the conflict as not about you or the other worker as a person, but rather an issue. Practice a non-judgmental attitude. If things get personal, step back and look solely at the problem behaviour.

    See the situation from the other person’s perspective. (e.g., “When I say “Okay” then I don’t follow through, you get upset.”). Refrain from giving your “side” of the story when empathizing.

    The conflict may be a simple misunderstanding so be curious and explore. Don’t ask, “Why are you giving me the cold shoulder?” Instead, ask, “I noticed we don’t talk much anymore. What might have caused that?”

    Consider sharing how you are feeling using “I” statements – “I feel confused when I hear about mistakes I’ve made in my work from people in the other department.”

    When workers use the right skills at the right time and the conflict remains unresolved it may be time to take the problem to a supervisor. Telling a supervisor of your intentions to resolve an issue with a co-worker before setting out to do so will help managers understand the issue before it lands in their lap.

    Managers should stay neutral and help employees work things out by coaching each party on how to resolve the problem. However, if the situation is not resolved quickly and satisfactorily, managers may need to step in. Once again the manager is there to help staff discuss the matter and resolve the issue themselves. Coaching staff on conflict resolution while in the manager’s presence can be an effective way to develop skills.

    How did Keith cope with the conflict?

    After taking a company training course on conflict management, Keith decided to send Martha a memo outlining his concerns and his sincere wish to improve their working relationship. He copied the memo to their boss. Martha took Keith’s memo to be a serious sign that Keith wanted to resolve the conflict. They met face-to-face. Keith discovered he had offended Martha some time ago by complaining to staff about how their time was being spent on “Martha’s projects”, embarrassing Martha. They both apologized and re-focussed on a way to share staff equitably.

    Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at sunmail@newmangrigg.com

    Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.

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