How to deal with workplace conflict

By Scot Herrick | Job Performance

Feb 09

Whenever teams are formed, they go through stages of effectiveness — including storming. Conflict brews, disagreements are aired and it honestly looks like the whole team will fall apart. It could, too, if conflicts are not resolved in a way that builds the team instead of tearing it down.

When I’m talking conflict here, it is about conflict in a team about a direction or a decision that needs making about the work they do. In this type of situation, conflict is good. Conflict builds a better decision than if the disagreements were never aired.

But letting conflict get out of hand is abdicating the management of the team or the meeting. It is a fine balance to make — airing the conflict compared to moving on — but it is a job skill that is needed for all of us.

Before coming to a decision, there are five ways you can help manage the conflict to get to the best decision for you and the team.

Know everyone’s position on the issue so you can understand

Understanding everyone’s position on an issue helps provide guidance and organization. What you want to accomplish is to get the issues out of people’s heads and onto something so the issue is objectified. When you don’t get everyone’s position out of their head, you may get agreement, but you won’t get buy in.

Plus, unless everyone else understands each others positions, you won’t be able to address all the objections that need addressing about the issue.

Ensure positions are clarified — and be the one doing the clarifying

“When you say X, does that mean this or something else?”, you need to ask. Clarifying positions is important because there are no universal meaning of words used, especially in a business context. By clarifying the issue, you bring out the underlying assumptions causing the conflict in the first place.

When you provide this role, you end up taking a less contentious path to getting the issue resolved. Plus, you are able to see possible improvements and consensus in a direction by asking the clarifying questions.

Offer a solution to beat up

The weird thing about creativity is that it is very hard to come up with a decision when there is nothing out there. People have a hard time coming up with brand new stuff out of thin air.

Much better to put a proposal out there — and not have any ego in the proposal — and let people find all the faults. Why? You get to see what would be acceptable to each person if you incorporate their objections about what is lacking placed in the proposal.

This is how you get to better decisions.

The Cubicle Warrior aspect to this? 80% of what you want in a solution will be in the solution because you proposed it. Most of your coworkers won’t offer a solution, they will simply attack what is out there. So put your solution out there and let it get beat up; most of it will survive.

Make sure everyone is heard

People may not like the decision coming out of a conflict, but they will respect it only if their viewpoint is given a fair hearing. What’s a fair hearing? You can’t really answer that for every situation, so you can’t arbitrarily cut off discussion.

But each person needs to air their opinion and be willing to defend that position so they have a stake in the decision. If they don’t talk about their position, they won’t buy into the final decision. If they won’t defend their position, they won’t care about the outcome and won’t buy into the final decision.

Besides, everyone coming to the table with a position — and the premise that it will make a better decision — will encourage the best decision possible.

Build a decision around the best ideas

Here, you need to take the best ideas from each person and build it into the decision. John improves the decision by having X in it and Judy improves the decision by having Y in it.

By building on a base solution and incorporating something from every person (if possible), you get that person’s stake into the decision.

There will be conflict

All teams have conflict around ideas, direction and decisions. A great job skill is working through the conflict to get to a better decision. That’s the premise of great teams: our disagreements and diversity of opinions will help us build better decisions.

Do you have Conflict Zen?

  • christinelivingston says:

    I like the suggestion of offering a solution so that it'll get beaten up. So true, and you're right, even if it is beaten up, the chances are some of it will stick because you had the guts to put it out there while others did not.

    I'd also add in conflict that it can be useful to figure out for yourself what's really, really important that'll cause you to hold your position on something, and what's less important to you that you can allow yourself to concede or let go of.

  • Scot Herrick says:

    One of the great characteristics of emotional intelligence is the ability to have people challenge your thinking without taking offense (unless they are offensive, of course…). Unless you get challenged, you can't think through your position as well and you won't figure out what's really, really important to you. A very good point, Christine.

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