Resolving Conflict in the Workplace

Conflict is a fact of life. Let's face it: Human beings are multifaceted characters and "not" everyone is going to get along all the time. In many instances, conflict in the workplace causes havoc. At the very least, it can lead to uncomfortable tension among staff. At worst, the results can be deadly.

Reasons for Workplace Conflict    to top

  1. Change, prevalent in today's working landscape because of increased technology.

  2. Different communication styles. A work environment may house everyone from the strong, silent type to the person who is moved to cry at the drop of a hat.

  3. Prejudices. Today more than ever, the workplace is home to people from a variety of different backgrounds, but that does not mean they will all get along. Working so closely side by side, a person's deep-seated prejudices are bound to flair up.

  4. Mismatched goals, mismatched expectations, and mismatched values. Some people value work more than others, some people are more motivated than others, and some people just work better side by side than others. Can somebody say tension?

Conflict Climate
Violence and conflicts Though it is rare, unresolved conflict can lead to workplace violence, as noted in the recent rash of shootings. Suicide also has been linked to office conflict, as has domestic violence.

The Deal    to top

People deal with conflict in a variety of ways. Following is a list of some of the behaviors people may assume to deal with the stress.

  1. Avoidance. Ignore the problem and it will go away.
  2. Accommodation. Try to please everyone (and in reality please no one and, often, look like a jerk).
  3. Collaboration. Work together to find a solution.
  4. Compromise. Give in on one area with the idea that others will give in on other areas.
  5. Combative. May the best (or toughest) man or woman win.

You need to deal with conflict in a way that makes sense for your situation; in general, however, the collaborative effort is the way to go because it involves people working together for the common good.

Resolving Conflict    to top

Although a certain amount of conflict may be beneficial, the tension it causes can ultimately be disruptive. Therefore, it should never be ignored. Following are some steps to help resolve conflict in the workplace.

  1. Identify the issue(s). What is the real problem? Remember: Your perception of the problem may be different than your co-worker's. Communication is key.

  2. Take everyone's concerns into account. Practice active listening. Repeat what the other person said for clarification.

  3. Don't interrupt. Let everyone have their turn to speak.

  4. Brainstorm for possible solutions. Evaluate the options. Take a piece of paper and make two columns, one for plusses, one for minuses. List answers for each column.

  5. Take a time out when needed.

  6. Look internally. This is not to say that you are to blame for the conflict, but you should consider your role.

What's a Boss to Do?    to top

As the ringleader, supervisors have the responsibility to make sure conflict does not escalate to unproductive or dangerous levels. Here are some tips to swing the pendulum back toward harmonious.

  1. Encourage open communication in the organization. Pay special attention to the introverts of the group. Make sure everyone's voice is heard.

  2. Encourage an acceptance of different working styles and perspectives. And, most importantly, encourage diversity. Set a good example.

  3. Be aware of brewing conflict. Do you notice cliques being formed? Have you witnessed arguing or tempers flaring? Nip the problem in the bud.

  4. Realize that friendship is not the goal at work — getting the job done is. In other words, co-workers may not become best buddies, but they should be able to coexist.

  5. Empower your employees. Make them aware of policies regarding the handling of disputes, and uphold that policy.

Go Outside!    to top

  1. Seek help from professional mediators. Try or The American Arbitration Association, or simply look in your Yellow Pages under "mediators" for experts in your area. In addition, the Web site of The Society of Professionals in Dispute Resolution ( offers information for those in need.

Conflict Climate
According to Mike Carr, president of the American Society of Professional Mediators in Sacramento, CA, a mediator worth his salt will have background in your area of concern and allow the parties to come to their own conclusion. Mediators, in fact, are prohibited from giving legal advice, counseling, or providing therapy for their clients.

  1. Books such as Working Anger: Preventing and Resolving Conflict on the Job, by Ronald T. Potter-Efron, M.S.W., Ph.D.; Getting To Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In by Roger Fisher, by William Ury and Bruce Patton; Getting Past No, by William Ury; and Dinosaur Brains: Dealing With All Those Impossible People at Work, by Albert J. Bernstein are recommend by experts in conflict resolution.

Conflict Climate
Stephen R. Covey's highly successful book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is intended for life management. Certain steps, however, are especially suited to conflict management, according to Mike Carr. Pay special attention to Number 4: Think Win/Win; Number 5: Seek First to Understand ... Then to be Understood; and Number 6: Synergise.

Take Care of Number 1    to top

Don't let conflict get the best of you. Symptoms that the stress is getting to you may manifest themselves physically in the form of headaches, insomnia, and frequent illness; psychologically in the form of anxiety, depression, and insecurity; and behaviorally in the form of loss of appetite (or overeating), poor job performance, and changes in close family relationships. Take steps to care for yourself by exercising, eating well, getting enough sleep, and talking to others. The healthier you are, the better able you will be to handle whatever challenging situations come your way.

Conflict is inevitable, but not all conflict is bad. In fact, some conflict may even be beneficial. Conflict requires us to face issues and overcome challenges. Conflict encourages us to come up with new ways of doing things; ways that will benefit the needs of the whole, rather than just a few. "The goal is not to eliminate conflict but to learn how to manage conflict effectively," says Carr. Most people spend more than forty hours per week on the job. It is in your best interest to make that time as pleasant and productive as possible.

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