In the workplace, negotiations with coworkers over issues such as project assignments, departmental funding, and vacation requests can sometimes flare into conflicts. When they do, the experience can be stressful, and the organizational outcomes sometimes suffers as a result. The following conflict management strategies can help you address conflict in the workplace, both as an employee and as a manager.
1. Reappraise negative emotions
The anger triggered by workplace conflict can unleash several harmful cognitive biases, including overconfidence, unrealistic optimism, and aggression, negotiation researchers have found. Our decision making in workplace negotiation and other contexts can suffer as a result.
In one negotiation study, James Gross of Stanford University, Jane Richards of the University of Texas at Austin, and Oliver John of the University of California at Berkeley compared the relative costs of two forms of emotional regulation: 1) suppression, or attempts to tamp down and avoid confronting our emotions, and 2) reappraisal, or attempts to control our emotions by changing how we think about a given situation. In this study, relative to those who engaged in reappraisal, participants who suppressed their emotions had impaired cognitive processing, and their negotiation counterparts liked them less.
How can you reappraise your anger when dealing with conflict in the workplace? Try to anticipate when you may be subject to strong emotional experiences and reappraise the situation beforehand, suggests Stanford University professor Margaret A. Neale. As an example, before a conference call with a coworker you haven’t been getting along with, think about what he might say that could cause you to react emotionally. If you anticipate him making a threat, consider what the threat might suggest about what he values, says Neale. This type of reappraisal may help you head off an emotional reaction and aid in managing workplace conflict.
2. Respond to challenging moves
Whenever negotiators are bargaining over concrete issues, such as the terms of a work project, they are simultaneously conducting a parallel negotiation regarding their relationship, write Deborah M. Kolb and Judith Williams in their book Everyday Negotiation: Navigating the Hidden Agendas in Bargaining (Jossey-Bass, 2003). This “shadow negotiation,” which takes place under the surface of the conversation, explains why discussions of concrete, seemingly rational matters can lead to angry outbursts and hurt feelings that can require conflict management.
Negotiators may make any of several “moves” to question each other’s legitimacy and assert their power, note Kolb and Williams. For example, whether subtly or directly, a negotiator may challenge your competence or expertise, demean your ideas, or criticize your style.
How can you defend yourself against such moves without being accused of overreacting? Kolb and Williams suggest several responses, which they call “turns”:
• Interrupt the move. Take a break, which should give everyone present time to gain control of their emotions.
• Try naming the move. Put your coworker on notice that you recognize her power play for what it is. If someone says, “You can’t be serious!” in response to one of your ideas, for example, you might respond, “Actually, I’m quite serious. Instead of cutting me off, how about if you give me a chance to clarify my plan?”
• Correct the move. Substitute the other side’s negative remarks with a more positive interpretation of your behavior. If a coworker incorrectly blames you for a decision that went wrong, rather than lashing out, provide hard evidence in the form of the facts you have gathered.
• Divert the move. Shift the focus back to the issue at hand. If someone criticizes you as overly sensitive, you might say, “Let’s try to avoid personal judgments and concentrate on the proposal.”
3. Mediate a resolution
The techniques of professional mediators can help in managing workplace conflict, writes Tufts University professor Jeswald Salacuse in his book Leading Leaders: How to Manage Smart, Talented, Rich, and Powerful People (Amacom, 2006).
In mediation, disputants work together to reach a resolution that satisfies both sides. The mediator helps disputants dealing with conflict by encouraging them to share information about their interests and explore creative solutions.
It isn’t realistic for managers to take on the mantle of an impartial mediator, but you can adapt mediation skills as a leader with the goal of managing workplace conflict and helping the organization as a whole. By listening closely and encouraging problem solving, you may be able to bring employees together.
Leaders also can leverage punishment and rewards to resolve conflict in the workplace, writes Salacuse. If two unit heads have been openly fighting over an account, you could threaten to penalize them or their departments—say, by giving the account to a third unit or by decreasing their funding—to motivate them to negotiate a resolution. Alternatively, you could reward disputants for setting aside their differences, whether with praise, additional funding, or some other valued resource.