How to navigate workplace conflict

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When I bring up the idea of conflict, what is your reaction? Do you feel confident facing conflict situations head on? Or would you prefer to avoid conflict because it makes you uncomfortable?

Also, what do we mean when we use the term conflict? The Cambridge Dictionary defines conflict as “an active disagreement between people with opposing opinions or principles.” However, when talking about workplace conflict it is important to draw a distinction between unhealthy and constructive conflict. There are many ways to think about this and these observations are grounded in the theories in the TotalSDI assessments.

  • Unhealthy conflict is personal and makes people feel that their self-worth is under attack. This type of conflict reduces collaboration and engagement, strains relationships, and causes stress.
  • Constructive conflict, or opposition, allows us to explore different viewpoints and ultimately make better decisions. A safe space is created and people are encouraged to discuss difficult issues without making it personal.

Organizations, leaders and teams need to encourage constructive conflict. This means creating a safe space for opposing ideas. It can feel good when teams make decisions without any tension. Yet we all know that the absence of conflict doesn’t mean that everyone agrees. We have all been in meetings where someone (perhaps us) didn’t speak up against an idea even though they weren’t in agreement. This could be due to feeling uncomfortable or could be a sign of disengagement.

Through my work with TotalSDI, I help leaders and teams gain confidence around conflict. The first step is to understand that there are different styles of conflict. People react to the idea of conflict in three main ways:

  • Accommodate - those who want to accommodate the opposition and maintain peace, harmony and goodwill.
  • Assert - those who want to assert their rights, to challenge conflict directly, and to prevail over obstacles.
  • Analyze - those who want to slow things down, analyze the situation carefully and logically, to maintain order and principles.

Not surprisingly, people have different needs in conflict depending on their styles.

  • Those who seek to Accommodate will need more time and space to feel comfortable discussing the issue. It is important to listen and keep asking until you get to their concerns.
  • Those who seek to Assert want others to engage with them in the discussion with passion and energy. It is important to focus on resolving the issue and taking action.
  • Those who seek to Analyze need time to think things through. It is important to be calm and discuss ideas in a logical order. It is important to listen to understand and not to rush to make a decision too quickly.

In the workplace we need to engage in conflict in a way that honours our own needs, while also being aware that we can change our behaviour to give a colleague what they need. For example, if you need time to Analyze and face conflict with someone who Asserts, then clearly state this issue is important and you want to resolve it. Then ask for what you need, which could be 10 minutes to consider the issue before the discussion begins.

No matter what our style, we need to share our opposing views without threatening each other’s self-worth. Remember, opposition turns to conflict when it gets personal. Jill might believe that the organization should only have a print version of the donor report. Her colleague Keisha might hold the view that an online version is a better choice. They have opposing views. It becomes a conflict if Keisha says, “Jill you are always the one who gets in the way when we want to do something different.”

Instead of viewing Jill as an obstacle in the way of progress, Keisha can learn about her co-worker’s values and viewpoint using questions and statements like these:

  • What is important to you about continuing the print version of the donor report?
  • What are you trying to achieve with this report?
  • It’s important to me that we offer an online version. How can we achieve this and your goals?

Whatever your style – Assert, Accommodate or Analyze – the key to a successful conflict is asking open-ended questions and really listening to that person’s answers and perspectives. From this place of understanding, you can share your perspectives and desired outcomes.

We can view conflict as an opportunity to learn more about our colleagues. People go into conflict about things that are important to them. Therefore, if we avoid conflict situations, we lose the opportunity to deepen our relationships with our colleagues. So next time you find yourself avoiding conflict, I challenge you to engage and use this as an opportunity to deepen your relationships.mi

Interested in learning more? Have a Nice Conflict: How to Find Success and Satisfaction in the Most Unlikely Places is a great book that can get you started.

Janice Cunning, PCC is a certified leadership coach and facilitator who combines her coaching skills with 17 years of experience as a fundraising consultant and researcher. See more at FundraisingLeadership.org and follow her on Twitter @JaniceCunning.

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