Samantha was livid. While making a presentation during a meeting that both attended, Brad, a newcomer in her department, had shared some slides during a presentation that were clearly based on ideas for a project she’d shared with him privately—without giving her credit. Samantha angrily confronted Brad in his office after the meeting; he became defensive and denied the accusation. They were at a stalemate. How should they manage conflict in the workplace?
Conflict in the workplace happens every day and in every corner of the globe. Although there are some steps we can take to avoid the causes of conflict, conflict will still crop up from time to time at work. The following strategies can help you engage in effective workplace conflict resolution.
- Don’t Go It Alone. Employees usually make matters worse when they try to resolve conflict in the workplace on their own. Because our perceptions are based on self-interest, we’re likely to have difficulty finding solutions that both sides consider to be fair. In addition, people tend to escalate their commitment to conflict, leading to deeper and deeper animosity. If you experience conflict in the workplace, whether due to a personality issue or a disagreement over a work matter, enlist the help of a manager—someone you trust to handle the conflict confidentially and effectively.
- Listen Actively. In the midst of a heated conflict, our first instinct is to defend ourselves and our point of view, while attacking the other party. This battlefield mentality will get you nowhere. When negotiating conflict in the workplace with others, set a productive tone by letting the party you’ve been arguing with speak first. Samantha, for example, might give Brad as much time as he needs to explain what happened in the meeting, resisting the urge to interrupt him. She could question her understanding of what he’s said until she feels she has fully absorbed his perspective. When it’s time to air your own perspective on the conflict, claim the same ability to express your perspective without interruption. Focus on explaining how you view the situation, presenting hard evidence if necessary.
- Don’t Leave Emotions out of the Equation. It also can be important to talk about the feelings you’ve experienced when dealing with conflict in the workplace. Expressing the deep emotions that a conflict can engender not only can be cathartic, but should also help the other party see you as a multi-faceted human being, rather than as the “enemy.” Your disclosures could prompt the other party to open up about his own feelings regarding the conflict. For example, Samantha may explain that she felt not just angry but betrayed and hurt after believing that Brad stole her ideas. Brad might, in turn, disclose that he admires Samantha’s success and was trying to emulate her style, only to feel humiliated when she accused him of idea theft. By opening up about their emotions during conflict management, disputants expand their understanding of each other.
- Capitalize on Differences. In business negotiations, we can capitalize on our differing needs and preferences to create value. If one business partner has more money to contribute upfront, and the other expects to be able to contribute more later, they can structure financing to make the most of this difference. Similarly, employees embroiled in conflict in the workplace can often leverage their differences to create value. In their conflict, Samantha’s primary interest lies in getting credit for her ideas, while Brad’s lies in gaining stature in the organization. If their manager appreciates this, she might recommend that Samantha and Brad work together on Samantha’s initial ideas and try to collaborate on advancing them. At a follow-up team meeting, the manager could give credit where it’s due (to Samantha), and Samantha could tacitly endorse Brad by partnering with him on the project. When dealing with conflict in the workplace, capitalizing on differences can help employees transition from disputants to negotiators focused on solving a joint problem to their mutual benefit.
As you determine how to manage conflict at work, it’s important to remember that the more quickly you can exchange a combative attitude for a problem-solving mindset, the more likely you will be to resolve the dispute amicably. By bringing proven negotiation techniques to your dispute, including active listening, emotional intelligence skills, and value creation, you may even be able to transform your conflict in the workplace into a productive working relationship.
What other strategies have you used to effectively resolve conflict in the workplace?