Conflict in the workplace can take many forms. Perhaps you’re not getting on with a work colleague? You might find yourself in disagreement with your line manager about your performance? Maybe it’s a simple case of you disagreeing with a decision made on a project or personal piece of work?
It’s important to acknowledge that conflict in the workplace is a natural part of the work environment. Conflict generally indicates people bringing different views and opinions to the table – and that’s a good thing! It prevents ‘group think’ where everyone is polite and agreeable, but potentially blindsided by things no one sees.
Think about it – with disagreement and alternative views comes perspective. You might not agree with someone else’s opinion, but at least hearing it means you’ll look at a problem from multiple angles.
How does conflict arise in the workplace?
Conflict can sometimes feel very personal and targeted. You feel like a work colleague has got it in for you, for no apparent reason. Perhaps you simply find yourself disliking someone really intensely because of their behaviour, values or style. It’s important to work out what’s really going on here, before deciding how best to tackle the problem. And importantly you need to distinguish between general workplace disagreement and bullying and harassment.
Conflict at work or colleague disagreement doesn’t include sustained intimidation, being humiliated in front of co-workers, being blamed unfairly, being ostracised or any kind of physical or verbal abuse. If you’re unsure whether you’re suffering the effects of bullying and harassment, download our resource file.
Conflict in the workplace takes its toll on everyone. Very few are immune to its effects. You can quickly feel drained of energy, demoralised, frustrated or angry. You might start to withdraw, isolate and step back from the tasks at hand. While this is normal, it can feel uncomfortable and depressing. Worse still, it might lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy, where that question about your commitment or performance, turns into the reality of you failing at your job.
Before you get to that difficult place, it’s important to acknowledge that you’re a little stuck and could do with some tips for moving forward.
Strategies to resolve conflict in the workplace
We don’t think people seek out conflict in the workplace – that’s just bad karma for all concerned. Instead, the tension that arises between individuals and teams can often be explained, and managed, with a little bit of willingness, problem-solving and creativity.
Follow these straightforward steps to help you resolve conflict in the workplace:
Diagnose the problem
Understanding what’s going on when conflict arises, avoids a classic case of assumption. In the absence of well-thought-through information, we assume we know why we’re not getting on with someone – “they’re just selfish” / “they don’t understand the problem like I do” / “they don’t care about other people”.
Sometimes when people think differently it’s easy to fill in the blanks, assuming you know exactly what they are thinking. Our experience suggests this is a mistake! Try answering the following questions:
- Firstly, who exactly are you not getting on with? Is it a single person, a team, or a department?
- What historic relationship have you had with this individual/team? Has there always been a conflict inherent in your relationship or is this something new?
- Is something going on in your company that is seeding this conflict? For example, is the business struggling? Are people at risk of losing their jobs? This kind of tension can often spill over into arguments that are really rooted in people’s job fears and concerns.
- How does the conflict at work manifest – when and where does it happen? Is it always at the same time or in the same set of circumstances?
- What might be going on for the other person/persons?
Look deeply within yourself
While it’s difficult to acknowledge that you might have a role to play in any conflict at work, don’t ignore the old adage of ‘it takes two to tango’. Really tune into what’s going on and ask yourself the following:
- Are you dealing in truths or perceptions? Is your version of what is going on, really the only possible truth? Or is it possible that you are reinforcing what’s known as ‘confirmation bias’? Essentially, when you believe something to be true, you focus on information that confirms your view (and ignore other information that might cast doubt on it). Be open to acknowledging that your views might be flawed
- As you look deeply within yourself, consider what it might be like to be standing in the shoes of the other person. Why might the conflict at work exist? In what possible way might the other party/parties be right about the situation and you wrong?
Doing this kind of soul searching is really tough – so don’t expect to find it easy from the get-go. Use our ‘Not getting on with someone at work‘ journal to help you get perspective.
Find common ground
While you might prefer to disengage from the conflict around you, chances are you’ll be better off tackling it as early on as possible. This prevents small issues from growing into really big problems.
To repair broken relationships and manage conflict at work you need to hone your skills of negotiation and persuasion. Don’t expect everything to go your way. Instead, work towards finding common ground – where there is acknowledged ‘give and take’ by both parties.
- Don’t assume you know what the other party wants. Avoid assumptions by being prepared to talk about what’s going on. And don’t speak for someone else – only for yourself. It’s okay to express what you are thinking and feeling but remember to give the other party the opportunity to do the same
- Look for areas of compromise, and if you can be the first to offer it up. This way, you show your willingness and desire to make things better. It can often be the olive branch that gets things moving again
- Be persuasive about your points by preparing and specifically labeling what’s going on. So, rather than saying ‘you make me angry’, instead be clear about why you feel that way. For example, ‘when you spoke up in front of my colleagues and criticised me, it made me feel undervalued and embarrassed’. This pinpointing practice is critical to help others understand why you might feel negatively towards them.
Finally, it’s important to respect the fact that people have different views, opinions, morals, values and personal codes.
- You cannot bend others to your morals and values. And you wouldn’t expect the same to happen to you. Be respectful of people’s preferences. Also, be mindful of unconscious bias and stereotyping. With the right mindset, you can learn to respect the differences people bring to work and allow them to enrich your opinions rather than battle them
- Approach conflict at work with the intent of finding resolution amicably. If after all of the efforts above you still cannot resolve the conflict, then consider a more formal route such as the grievance procedure. Alternatively, take control of your situation and seek a different role or work environment that works better for who you are.