confrontation between the horse and the fattening of chess. 3d rendering and illustration representing workplace conflict

Nearly all of us will have experienced conflict in the workplace at one time or another. Whether you are at the centre of a disagreement, or just an onlooker, when things turn sour in the office the atmosphere that sometimes lingers can be stifling for everyone. Unresolved conflict often results in reduced productivity and creativity, a loss of morale, and can affect the entire dynamic of a team. You might find the stress that unresolved conflict causes can be worse than the original disagreement itself.

However, not all conflict is unhealthy. Some conflicts are not only useful, but necessary to spark innovation. In order to push boundaries a wide range of influences and opinions are helpful, especially for tasks which involve creative problem solving, innovation and collaboration. When people of differing opinions can work together to create new and unusual solutions to a problem, this maximizes the potential for innovative ideas. “High-performance teams do have disagreements, but they also manage them well,” says Kurt Wrigley, facilitator development specialist for Leading Teams, “the best teams have a real hunger for feedback because they know the intent of the people around them is to make them better.” Disagreements, when well-managed, can have lots of positive outcomes:

  • Better work outcomes – You’ll be forced to explore the pros and cons of each approach, look at both sides of a debate, and work out the best solution
  • A more inclusive environment – Understanding and learning to work with people with different personalities and values will create a better team cohesion and improve relationships
  • Opportunities for growth – By both incorporating feedback and trying to persuade a colleague to your way of thinking, you can develop skills of understanding and negotiation
  • Higher job satisfaction – When you’ve constructively challenged issues to reach a better outcome, your job satisfaction should be higher.

But what about when workplace conflict becomes unhealthy? There are steps you can take to try and regain a harmonious work environment:

1. Don’t avoid the issue

Many people head in the opposite direction when they spot conflict in the workplace. Difficult interpersonal workplace problems won’t disappear by ignoring them, and by waiting for them to pile up, you can reach a point where they are much harder to handle. Be pro-active and think about the best way to address them. As discussed, conflict can be healthy and benefit you in the long run if dealt with in the right way.

2. Take your time

It can be helpful to take time out to discuss the issue. This ensures you are not rushing and allows you to discuss thoughtfully. Make sure you stay calm and try not to get clouded by emotion. If you or the other person becomes overwhelmed, if the discussion becomes circular, or if no progress is being made it may be good to take a break.

3. Be specific

Ever heard of the ‘kitchen sink’ argument’? It’s where every issue is brought up in one discussion. This does not allow for constructive resolution of the matter at hand and can be perceived as an attack. So be clear about the issue on discussion and try to focus on reaching a resolution for that, instead of going off topic.

4. Listen

You may be hearing what your colleague has to say, but are you really listening to them? People’s minds often wander when others are speaking, especially in a group setting, and they don’t truly absorb what’s been said. Be sure to allow your colleague space to clearly communicate their feelings, thoughts, needs, values and priorities without interrupting them, and try to look at the issue from their perspective.

5. Find a common ground

Your conversation primarily will focus on the disagreements, but resolution is possible only when you find points of agreement. Agree on what you are trying to achieve, discuss each other’s expectations, and aim to keep your conversation goal-orientated. Frame the disagreement in terms of working together to find a common solution, so you’re able to focus on solving a problem together, not just trying to get the one outcome you want.

6. Move forwards

Compromise is important in any relationship. It requires both parties to negotiate, problem solve and come to an agreed conclusion on the best resolution going forwards. It’s important to acknowledge each person’s responsibility or actions that have been agreed to help resolve the issue. It’s helpful to encourage phrases such as “I agree to…” and “I understand that I have responsibility for…” so that both parties are clear moving forwards.

Sadly, the conflict will not always be able to be resolved informally, and if your attempts at reconciliation are not successful, it may be best to speak to a Team Leader or Manager for advice on the next steps to take.

Hidden within virtually every conflict is the potential for a tremendous teaching/learning opportunity. So, remember what you learnt from a dispute and whether you could have improved your handling of the situation. Dealing with conflict can be uncomfortable but helping to resolve disputes is an excellent leadership quality, and successfully diffusing a situation may put you in a better position to assume a leadership role in the future. But most importantly, by taking a proactive approach to conflict resolution we can all work towards a happier and more harmonious work environment.

Are you concerned about stress at work? Read our blog post Stress Mindset to see how you can work to avoid the negative effects associated with stress.