How to Make Workplace Conflict Work for You

Embrace Workplace Conflict

Even if you love your job and the people you work with, there will be conflict from time to time. Conflict is not a bad thing, if it is over something work-related, and not directed as a personal attack. Vigorous debate over the best path forward will lead to excellent discussion, many perspectives, and ultimately lead to innovation. Do not be afraid to enter into the throws of these types of discussions. As long as everyone is ultimately respectful of the people involved, and passion for the issue comes from a good place – it will leave the problem at hand in a better place in the end. I would even go as far as to say, a team or organization with no ability to freely and passionately debate issues concerning the project at hand, probably is an unhealthy organization at its core. Why do I say this? Do you work at a place where you see something should be improved, yet no one would dare mention it? When you are in a meeting and the leader makes a decision, does everyone remain silent, even if their body language makes it obvious they disagree? Have you been in a meeting where no one said anything, then directly following the meeting, people left and separated into smaller groups around the office, quietly whispering and complaining about what just happened? If this only happens occasionally – maybe not a big deal, but if this is the daily norm, this is probably an unhealthy organization. Learn to embrace healthy workplace conflict, and to use it strategically.

Learning to disagree and then constructively working through it is important if you care about truly reaching the best solution to the goals of the team. However, if a conflict over a work-related task is not managed well, it could grow into a personal conflict that poisons the whole team. When people are unhappy at work like this, tension and stress will rise, people will call in sick more often, and if it is bad enough – they will find somewhere else to work. The opposite of this type of workplace is one where people feel free to share their thoughts, they feel that they can provide various opinions, even if they disagree with the leader, or the rest of the team. When they offer their thoughts, they feel the leader and the team is listening to them. This type of workplace is a place where people want to come to work, they are loyal to their organization, and long-lasting work relationships are cultivated. This type of work place will generate better products and will have a great cost savings from the retained knowledge alone. This is the type of place where we all want to work.

Many people think of conflict as fighting. But, fighting is only one of the ways people deal with conflict. In his white paper, “Making Conflict Management a Strategic Advantage,” Dr. Kenneth Thomas says a more useful definition of conflict is the condition in which people’s concerns appear to be incompatible. He says a concern is “anything people care about”.

Dr. Thomas identified five Conflict-Handling Modes in his white paper. He says when people find themselves in conflict, their behavior can be described in terms of where it lies along two independent dimensions. Picture a diagram as you listen, assertiveness is represented along a vertical axis and cooperativeness is represented across the horizontal axis. Assertiveness is the
degree to which you try to satisfy your own concerns, and cooperativeness is the degree to which you try to satisfy the other person’s concerns.

The five modes of conflict are:

  • Competing is assertive and uncooperative. You try to satisfy your own concerns at the other’s expense—to win.
  • Accommodating is unassertive and cooperative—the opposite of competing. You sacrifice your own concerns to satisfy the other person’s.
  • Compromising is partially assertive and partially cooperative. You look for an acceptable settlement that only partially satisfies both your own and the other person’s concerns.
  • Avoiding is unassertive and uncooperative. You try to sidestep or postpone the conflict, satisfying neither person’s concerns.
  • Collaborating is assertive and cooperative. You try to problem-solve to find a solution that completely satisfies both your concerns and the other’s.

When you consider this ingeniously simple model, I want you to notice something that not everyone considers — collaborating is possible in conflict. You don’t have to compete to get your needs met. Also, you can cooperate without being thought of as too “soft.”  The collaborative process can become very passionate at times, with people expressing their views strongly to make sure they are heard and taken seriously. But what makes collaboration different from other conflict-handling modes is that people are listening to other people’s views, not just focusing on their own opinions, and they try to incorporate their ideas into sound decisions.

Team members can benefit from learning that teammates with each of the five conflict styles have positive values and are trying to make a positive contribution to the team.

Competitors are trying to champion courses of action that they believe to be sound and to move things along, accommodators are trying to maintain and build team goodwill and cohesiveness, and so on for the other conflict styles. Each tends to specialize in some aspects of group performance and to be especially good at dealing with certain kinds of situations. Understanding the positive intentions and contributions of each style reduces resentments over style differences and makes it easier for team members to listen to each other. They can then learn from one another’s insights.

Do not be afraid of conflict, but try to be aware of your style and those around you.  Constructive conflict is a very important part of strong teams.  If you can learn to use the appropriate style at the right time, and understand the styles and what might be driving them in others, your team can become a high performing and highly productive team!  

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