What are Conflict Cultures and How to Handle Them

bully, bullying, work, jobHave you ever been in a fight at work?

Your answer probably depends on the way your organization handles conflict and disagreements, and it affects everything from customer service, to creativity, to staff burn-out rates.

According to workplace psychologist Dr. Jennifer Newman, workplace cultures and management styles play a significant role in conflict resolution.

Regardless of how you handle conflict at work, there are things you can do to adjust to your workplace culture and managers style – follow the link to listen to the interview with Rick Cluff on CBC’s The Early Edition, or click on the MP3 player below.

What is a Conflict Culture?

All organizations have conflict, so companies implicitly create conflict cultures. These are like unspoken rules to define how everyone is supposed to handle disagreements. Research indicates there are several types of conflict cultures. One is the ‘dominating’ conflict culture. Here the object is to seek victory and outwit your colleagues. Then there are avoidant cultures. Here, surpressing disagreement at all costs is the norm. Finally, there are collaborative conflict cultures, where the objective is to engage in non-defensive dialogue and joint problem-solving.

How are Dominating Cultures Formed?

It’s an interplay between your manager’s leadership style and what is modelled and reinforced daily. So, if your supervisor uses dominance to manage conflict. Staff will follow suit.

You’ll see active confrontation between co-workers, with each trying to win in a very public way, and supervisors allowing them to push their agenda until someone triumphs. You’ll have a supervisor who likes getting into heated arguments, who doesn’t give in and probably yells at staff.

Everyone around them learns this is how to deal with dissent, and the organization considers it appropriate. Staff are encouraged to compete by being disagreeable. In these cultures, it’s common and acceptable to engage in powerplays, use threats, and exclude others to win.

Are Avoidant Conflict Cultures are the Exact Opposite?

Managers play a key role here as well. Usually they believe conflict is somehow dangerous. For them, maintaining harmony has high importance. These managers signal the best approach is to withdraw from conflict.

This can lead to staff not being frank with each other. Everyone is smiling but may be quite angry on the inside. They silence themselves and pretend to accept differences.

In this culture, it’s considered appropriate and preferable to accommodate and acquiesce. Changing the subject to avoid an argument is common, and smoothing things over to evade an open discussion is typical.

How Do We Achieve a Collaborative Conflict Culture?

The assumption in collaborative conflict cultures is that dissent is appropriate and normal. You’ll see open discussion about emerging power struggles or turf wars as they develop. Information from all those involved is gathered and heard. Competing needs and wants are uncovered.

There’s mutual respect and active interest in everyone’s perspective. Joint solutions are found to handle things. You won’t see ‘My-Way-Or-The-Highway’ behaviour or attempts to sweep things under the rug.

What’s the fall-out for staff who work in Dominating Cultures?

You’ll probably notice a lack of cohesion. You might be part of a team, but you don’t trust anyone. If you have a friend at work, it’s more like a strategic alliance.

Also, you might notice it makes it harder to do quality work. If you make a mistake, it’s more likely to be used against you. You’ll see favouritism.

You might feel taken for granted or taken advantage of by your employer at times. And it’s a dog-eat-dog atmosphere. So, to keep your sense of dignity, you probably use “controlled aggression”, which is when workers don’t actually hit each other, but everything else goes.

What about avoidant conflict cultures, how do staff fare in those environments?

There’s a sense of muzzling yourself. Creativity suffers. You won’t want to go out on a limb with anything new. So, staff keep their suggestions to themselves.

No one wants disagreement because it threatens staff harmony. There’s a tentative atmosphere and a feeling of being fake. Silencing oneself all day is hard-work! It’s emotionally draining and burnout can occur.

Are some workers better suited to these different cultures?

If you are a winner-takes-the-spoils type, dominating conflict cultures will feel like home. If you are a bit of an ostrich, or find it hard to disagree, you’ll like an avoidant culture. But, if there’s a mismatch, employees need to be careful.

If workers like to work things out collaboratively, a dominating or avoidant workplace could cause suffering. Attempting to collaborate in a dominating culture can result in psychological injuries like depression or anxiety. Taking a collaborative approach in an avoidant context can lead to frustration and isolation. Workers will be encouraged to pipe down and colleagues will avoid them.

If a worker tries to dominate in a collaborative culture, they quickly find themselves being actively managed to learn different ways of handling things. Avoidant workers in dominant cultures often quit if they can’t stay under the radar, while dominant workers in avoidant workplaces can do well. They create personal turf and defend it. It takes a while for avoidant workplaces to act. It usually requires some outside intervention like a bullying and harassment complaint.

What’s your advice for staff who may be facing a mismatch between their preferred conflict style and that of their company?

If you prefer dominating approaches to conflict resolution and you are being actively managed around your aggression, consider accepting the help. Try to resist your natural inclination to fight it.

If you are a collaborator in a dominating conflict culture, stop collaborating. That doesn’t mean start using controlled aggression to influence things. Remain, calm, consistent and firm, be strategic—figure out what you can have influence over. Stick to what you can control and excel in that area. Refuse to take dominating behaviours personally. Develop an exit strategy to use if things become too much.

If you’re avoidant in your approach and you have landed in a collaborative workplace, watch how your supervisor handles disagreement. Slowly try some of his or her approaches. See if you can learn to follow his or her lead. If the mismatch is too great you may need to leave. If you are being abused in a dominating conflict culture, be aware that over time, it can take a toll on your psychological health.

Print Friendly