Workplace conflict: it’s inevitable. Left unchecked it can cripple organizations, especially where those in positions of authority are not properly trained to handle it. Poor leaders can find conflict difficult to address, becoming paralyzed over how to react to it. In turn they may give unsolicited advice or even ultimatums, both of which only worsen the conflict and continue to strain the environment. And the impact of conflict in the workplace isn’t merely emotional; it’s also economical. According to a 2008 global study on workplace conflict, US employers spent (and assumingly still spend) at least 2.8 hours each week dealing with conflict, which amounts to millions of dollars in paid unproductive time.
Combatting workplace conflict requires creating environments which deter conflict from beginning, as well as an understanding of how to address conflict when it does emerge. Regarding the former, here are suggestions from leadership experts on steps which can be taken to decrease the likelihood of workplace conflict:
- Avoid arguments. The advice seems nonsensical at first, but upon investigating you will find that most arguments and conflicts are begun intentionally. This is why the tenth principle of How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie is simply to “avoid arguments.” Humans by nature will find even the most trivial issues by which to criticize and argue with others, and the best thing you can do is learn to not engage in such activity.
- Build trust. As author Patrick Lencioni writes in Organizational Health, organizations which lay a solid foundation of trust are able to keep debates focused on the pursuit of their missions without dissolving into personal attacks. One of the best ways to build trust is by allowing vulnerability to be visible, especially on the part of the leader. When leaders make mistakes and then publically acknowledge those, the rest of the team receives the message that they too can be vulnerable without feeling threatened.
- Learn to assume good intentions. As acknowledged by Entrepreneur Magazine, simple misunderstanding is oftentimes the culprit behind conflict. Even something as simple as a misinterpreted quick stare can fester into mistrust and conflict if not properly addressed. Create environments where the inherit good in people is assumed first, not later.
As stated however, conflict is inevitable. When it occurs, keep these ideas in mind to resolve it:
- Confess your part in the conflict. Yes, you read that correctly. Just as it takes two to tango, it takes at least two individuals to have a conflict, and there is high probability that you yourself had a role in creating the conflict. It could have been your attitude, your words, your actions, or any number of other factors, but whatever it may be, own it and take responsibility. Trying to deny your role in the conflict will only embolden the other party.
- Attack the problem, not the person. Remember: the other person will still be around long after the current conflict is over. Don’t burn bridges or do anything else that would diminish the value of the other individual or your relationship. Relationships are one of the most important and meaningful forces on earth. Don’t let one be destroyed needlessly over conflict.
- Seek first to understand, not to be understood. It is natural in conflict that we want our own feelings, beliefs, and points of view on the topic at hand to be discussed. However, it is far more advantageous to spend your energy on working to understand the position of the other party, which is critical in understanding why the conflict exists and what needs to be done to resolve it. This also leads to the next idea:
- Sympathize with the other party. Once you understand the other party, it is easier to sympathize with them and create a desire to resolve the conflict. You may even discover that…
- Hurting People Hurt People. As John Maxwell discusses in Winning with People, keep in mind that there may be unknown factors in the other party’s life that is causing them to act or speak as they are. In other words, “hurting people hurt people”, and so don’t immediately assume that their negative attitude or actions are being driven specifically by you. The current conflict may simply be an outlet by which they are expressing the pain which is present elsewhere in their life (which in turn means that your conflict may become an opportunity for you to positively pour into them and help them).
Given that conflict is inevitable, keep in mind that there are potential benefits of controlled conflict. For example, assuming that you have first built an environment in which members feel safe enough to disagree with one another, controlled disagreement can birth creative debate. A culture where dissent is allowed, or even encouraged, can spur innovation, diversity of thought and better decision-making. Furthermore, in the words of Piera Palazzolo, Senior Vice President of the Dale Carnegie Training Institute, “If there’s conflict, it shows that your people care; they are engaged and passionate and they are willing to argue for their position and for their success at work. The trick is making sure that conflict is managed correctly so that it’s used to the betterment of the business; to get different points of view, to investigate different ways of doing things, to promote innovation and out-of-the-box thinking,”
The next time you find yourself in workplace conflict (and you will), keep these thoughts in mind so that you work to resolve the conflict in a manner which is meaningful, productive, and leaves both you and the other party with more trust between each other.
Jeremiah Clark, M.A., is a healthcare IT consultant with six Epic Systems certifications. He is also the co-owner of Appalachian Digital, a website development agency. You can contact Jeremiah at JeremiahSethClark@Outlook.com or connect with him on LinkedIn at Jeremiah Clark.