How to Handle Conflict in the Workplace

The cost of conflict in the workplace can be very high. While conflict cannot be avoided, the approach to its solution makes all the difference. In this post, you learn to recognize which attitude and skills help to handle in a constructive way conflict in the workplace.

According to the report “Workplace Conflict and How Businesses Can Harness It to Thrive,” the following statistics demonstrate how pervasive conflict is in the workplace:

  • 85 percent of employees deal with conflict on some level
  • 29 percent of employees deal with it almost constantly
  • 34 percent of conflict occurs among front-line employees
  • 12 percent of employees say they frequently witness conflict among the senior team
  • 49 percent of conflict is a result of personality clashes and “warring egos.”
  • 34 percent of conflict is caused by stress in the workplace
  • 33 percent of conflict is caused by heavy workloads
  • 27 percent of employees have witnessed conflicts lead to personal attacks
  • 25 percent of employees have seen conflict result in sickness or absence
  • 9 percent have seen workplace conflict cause a project to fail

Why is there conflict in the workplace?

Conflict in the workplace is a shared experience. 

Discriminatory practices, lousy performance reviews, customs dissatisfaction, personality clashes, all contribute to a challenging working environment.

It is not uncommon to hear employees complaining about the management style of their boss. Or to learn about rivalries among peers.

In short, the interdependent nature of teams and organizations, the competitive if not incompatible goals and interests, and a perceived scarcity of resources can be at the root of a conflict in the workplace.

And yet, the presence of conflict is not in itself a problem.

The two attitudes towards conflict

What marks the outcome of a conflict in the workplace is the attitude.

A pioneer in conflict resolution, the late social psychologist Morton Deutsch has identified two central attitudes that we develop when confronted with a conflict.

I remember the master class, which professor Deutsch gave at Columbia University in the fall of 20000. Engaging with graduate students for two hours, he summarized a lifelong commitment to peace and conflict resolution.

He said that if we were to understand the two attitudes to conflict and the impact they can make on the life of an organization, we had in our hands the key to making a meaningful impact.

When conflict is all about winning or losing

Morton Deutch explained that one approach to conflict is competition. Parties in a conflict perceive conflict as a zero-sum game. There has to be a loser to be a winner. For me to continue swimming, the other needs to sink.

Some of the traits of a competitive approach to a conflict are the following:

  • Impaired communication
  • Obstructiveness
  • Lack of help
  • Constant disagreements
  • One's power is enhanced when the power of the other is reduced

This attitude encourages a destructive pattern of the conflict. It can lead to a downward spiral of performance and results.

A better way to handle conflict in the workplace

The opposite attitude to conflict is cooperation.

It is an approach that recognizes the interdependence of the relations, and it frames conflict as an opportunity to improve performance, communication, and relationships.

Rather than a zero-sum game, conflict becomes a win-win opportunity. There is a shared belief that everyone is better off if no one sinks, but all instead are allowed to swim.

When cooperation marks the approach to conflict, then the following behavioral patterns are observed:

  • Effective communication
  • Helpfulness
  • Trust
  • Coordination of efforts
  • Reciprocal respect 
  • Conflicting interests are defined as a mutual problem to be solved

To maintain a cooperative approach is not easy when confronted with conflict. It is easy to be defensive and fearful, or aggressive and even angry when we perceive that our interests, our role, or even our reputation is at stake.

This is why organizations are investing more and more in sound conflict management and conflict coaching training.

To be able to maintain a high-performance under stressful circumstances cannot be left to improvisation and to chance. Top performers always train their mental grit for the most challenging moments.

The difference that makes the difference

When I work with clients or when I facilitate a leadership training, I always put forward an invitation: What if we look at conflict not as a problem to be solved, but as an invitation for personal and organizational growth?

As long as we see conflict as a problem to be fixed, we operate from the same level at which the conflict was created.

Instead, when we see conflict as an opportunity to be bigger and better, we are challenged to rise to a new quality of thoughts, emotions, behaviors; we are invited to develop further references and to update our values and our beliefs. Ultimately, we are encouraged to upgrade our self-image.

When we recognize in conflict the opportunity for change and transformation, eventually we elevate and expand our identity.

This way, we recognize that underneath the conflict that is a future that wants to emerge. That is, there is a potential that wants to be expressed, a reality that wants to be generated. 

In other words, a conflict can be the most precious gift that happens to our personal lives and the life of our organizations.

[If you are interested in developing your conflict coaching skills, go here to learn more].

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