Conflict can be defined as disagreement between two or more individuals or groups arising from differences of opinions, beliefs, or actions. It is a normal part of everyday life, given that individuals have different experiences, values, and beliefs that shape their perception of the world.
Conflict in the workplace can usually be associated with resource allocation, perceptions, and/ or values. In general, conflicts over resource allocation are the easiest to solve, since they can be looked at objectively and separated from personal opinions. Both parties may decide on an equitable solution or agree to let a superior make a decision and live with the consequences.
Conflicts that involve perceptions and values are often personal, and if left to fester it can take significant time and effort to determine the actual source of the problem and come to a decision that is satisfactory to both parties. They can also spread and create a toxic work environment for individuals on all sides of the conflict. It is important to deal with conflict in a responsive and thoughtful way, that allows for calm communication and amicable resolutions, this helps to maintain a cooperative and respectful workplace.
It is important to recognize that while most conflicts are able to be mutually resolved, some conflicts may require the help of a third party to mediate if the conflict is unresolvable or either party feels unsafe in engaging in the resolution process. Feeling safe when entering into conflict is essential, if the conflict stems from harassment or bullying it may be difficult to feel as though there is a safe space for resolution. Each situation will be different but assessing your personal safety and whether or not the other party is receptive to dialogue about the conflict is a good way to determine if you need to involve someone else from the beginning.
The following are some simple steps you can take to reduce and resolve conflict in the workplace:
- Remember that conflict is inevitable and does not reflect badly on you and that there are no winners and losers. The goal of conflict resolution is to come to an agreement that is of mutual benefit to both parties.
- Be proactive. If you feel that you have annoyed or made someone angry, ask to discuss it with them at the onset. Likewise, if you feel that you have been unfairly treated, use an assertive communication style and discuss it with your colleagues to resolve the issue. In this way, simple misunderstandings can be cleared up.
- It is better to deal with conflict face to face. Communication regarding conflict over phone, text message or email conversations can be misconstrued, which can lead to even more conflict and misunderstanding.
- Take the time to consider your emotions about the conflict. Are you feeling angry? Hurt? Scared? Recognizing how the conflict makes you feel allows you to respond better to the situation.
- Check your unconscious bias. Is there something that might cloud your judgement or make you react in a way that is biased because of your lived experiences?
- Ensure that you have all of the facts. Don’t speculate on the motivation of others or things that you do not have knowledge of. You can only speak to how you feel and what you know.
- Do you feel safe to engage in a conversation about this conflict? Most of the time, while these conversations are challenging and not necessarily ones we want to have, they are safe to engage in. Sometimes however there are conflicts that stem from issues such as harassment, which may not feel safe to engage in. If you do not feel safe engaging in a discussion regarding the conflict, find someone you trust, like an ally to discuss the situation with.
- The sooner you handle the conflict, the better. The longer a conflict goes unresolved, the larger it becomes and the more difficult it is to find the root of the problem. But it should be noted that a heated dispute or conflict should also be given enough time for each party to calm down prior to attempting to resolve it. Once both parties have calmed down it will be much easier to have a meaningful discussion and come to a resolution.
- Take the time to listen and reflect on the other speaker’s point of view. Put yourself in their shoes. It is important that they know you are listening, and it can help you see the situation from the other person’s point of view. Echo their feelings back to them so that they feel heard.
- Don’t interrupt. Give each person their time to speak, this ensures you don’t miss any important information or make the other person feel that their voice isn’t as valid as yours. You will have the time to reflect and respond when they are done speaking.
- Consider your body language. Give the other person adequate space, so they feel comfortable in the conversation and model calm and responsive body language. This means standing straight, hands at your sides and not clenched, and maintaining eye contact with the other person.
- Watch your vocal tone and volume. Keep things calm by using an even steady tone of voice and not raising your voice.
- Don’t make it personal. It’s hard sometimes to separate our emotions from facts, stick to what the conflict is about and how you feel about it rather than focusing on the other person.
- Avoid communication behaviours that could potentially inflame the situation. Do not engage in aggressive communication, try to assign blame, raise your voice, or use physically intimidating body language. These types of behaviour only serve to escalate conflict and do not lead to resolution.
- Take responsibility for your part in the conflict. If you’ve intentionally or unintentionally offended someone through your actions, acknowledge your part and move on.
- Once the conflict has been resolved, agree to move forward with a positive working relationship.
- If the conflict cannot be mutually resolved, know what your next steps are. Do you have a plan in place if you cannot resolve things between yourselves? What options are available to resolve this issue? Do you need assistance from a co-worker or supervisor to resolve the conflict?
Ineffective ways to reduce conflict at work include being passive and thinking that a problem will go away if it is left unchecked. This only leads to resentment and further issues. A workplace that uses effective conflict resolution practices tends to be more respectful and productive, where all people’s voices are heard.
Now complete the Learning Task Self-Test.
- Conflict is a disagreement between two or more people based on differences concerning which of the following?
- All of the above
- What do the most common workplace conflicts result from?
- Personal problems between staff members
- Jealousy and mistrust of other staff members
- Problems between employers and employees
- Resource allocations (e.g., differences in department budgets), perceptions, and values
- What is the best way for two individuals to settle a resource allocation-related conflict?
- Limit interactions with the other individual.
- Complain formally in writing to their superior.
- Agree to disagree and let someone else come up with the solution.
- Remove personal opinions, be objective, look at the issue, and try and find a solution that works.
- Conflict is inevitable and does not reflect badly on you.
- There is always a winner and a loser in a workplace conflict.
- It is always best to wait until you are calm before discussing a workplace conflict.
- The longer a conflict goes unresolved, the more difficult it becomes to find the source of the problem.
- Being passive or non-assertive is a good strategy when dealing with a conflict.
- Emotional and physical safety of all parties is very important when resolving conflict.
- A workplace with an effective conflict resolution strategy is:
- More fun
- Less fun
- More productive
- Less productive
See the Answer Key in the back matter of the textbook for self-test answers.