5 Ways to Effectively Manage Conflicts at Work
Read time: 7 minutes
Conflicts are a natural consequence of working in a team. When you have a group of people who care about achieving their individual and shared goals, have multiple differences among them (background, experience, personalities, roles, etc.), and must work together to move things forward, things aren’t going to flow smoothly all the time.
In a sense, conflict is inevitable. And as much as you don’t want a company in which people are constantly in conflict about everything, you also don’t want to have complacent people not expressing their points of view and ideas because they want to avoid upsetting someone else. You want to value harmony, but not at the price of effectiveness and productivity.
At times, conflict may become uncomfortable for the parties involved, but ultimately conflict itself is not positive or negative. What makes conflict positive or negative is more so the way it is handled. If managed properly, most of the conflicts we deal with can be leveraged to have a positive effect on relationships, company culture, and the business as a whole.
There are many different theories that can help you with understanding and handling conflict properly. To help make it more easily digestible and applicable in your daily life, I will describe the five styles used in the Thomas-Kilman model. Each of us has the tendency to use one or two of the following styles more often than the others. However, a deeper understanding of all the available options will give you more flexibility in managing your team and work more effectively.
This is as simple as it sounds: you can decide to avoid dealing with the conflict that emerges by ignoring it.
This approach can be negative when you try not to engage in a conflict only because you want to close your eyes to the problem. By postponing the conversation, you hope that it will go away on its own. However, in the back of your mind, you know that this, more often than not, is not the case. It’s more likely that the unresolved issues will accumulate, and the snowball effect will lead to a much worse result.
This approach can be positive when you simply choose to avoid a discussion about a trivial issue, or when you use it as a deliberate strategy to avoid dealing with an argument in the heat of the moment. In the latter case, you should follow up with the conscious decision to talk about it in another moment (eg. when you and the other person are calmer), or in another place (eg. not in front of some team members), or even with a totally different person (eg. higher in rank).
This is when you put yourself in the other person’s shoes and try to prioritize their needs over yours.
This approach can be negative when used automatically in every occasion there is a disagreement. In the long-term, this approach will cause you to feel resentment due to the lack of your own satisfaction (because you’re always giving in).
This approach can be positive when, in specific instances, you choose to put aside “being right” because you value the relationship more. What you are essentially doing is investing in your relationship (eg. repaying for past experiences, or investing in future collaborations). Be aware that there is a difference between being accommodating because you really value the relationship and being manipulative (ie. letting the person temporarily “win” because you want to make him feel indebted towards you). You are the only one who can manage the true intentions behind your actions.
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This style is used when you want to win the conflict, no matter what. All you have in mind is the end goal of meeting your own needs, without consideration of the other person’s needs.
This approach can be negative when you constantly feel the need to be right and have things your way. In the long-term, even if you are able to get what you want, it’ll have a damaging effect on your relationships.
This approach can be positive when you want to make a point on something that is important to you, or to the company, and cannot be negotiated (eg. a conflict due to a violation of your company’s core values or a racist comment).
This is a win-win resolution where everyone gets what they want. This is sometimes achieved using a non-linear approach to come up with a “generative” result. At first glance, this looks like the perfect solution to use for every conflict! But…
This approach can be negative when you use it in a situation where you don’t have enough time to go through the dialogue and the process that this style requires (eg. an emergency that requires a quick response to an important client). This is a style where, if you try to condense the process, you will probably end up compromising some part of the result along the way.
This approach can be positive when you build on it over time. This helps create a culture where people trust each other and openly communicate their needs, interests, perspectives and want to work together to achieve a common goal.
When you decide to compromise, you get some of your needs met, and the other person gets some of his or her needs met.
This approach can be negative when used with the illusion that as long as everybody gets something, everyone is happier. Sometimes this is true, but most of the time when both people compromise on their positions, you end up with two unsatisfied people that settle without getting what they really wanted/needed. Rather than having this situation, you may want to consider, whenever possible, letting the other person get what they want. This way, at least one of the two parties is happy, and the other has contributed to building a stronger relationship!
This approach can be positive when splitting somewhere in the middle of the position in conflict, results in some value for all, and actually leaves the two parties satisfied with a meaningful result.
At the end of the day, no one style fits all situations. By becoming aware that you have different choices for how to handle each conflict, and that each of them has a cost and benefit in the short-term and long-term, you can be more flexible, adaptive, and a better leader. Remember: it’s not about changing who you are, but changing what you do (and how you do it) based on the specific situation and the outcomes you want to produce.
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A former executive in the banking industry, Roberto Erario holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Economics and a Master in Corporate and Executive Coaching. He’s a Licensed Business and Life NLP Coach, a Certified Master NLP Practitioner, and he’s been training and coaching executives and business owners in Europe and North America for the last 11 years. Major past clients include the following: Accenture, Siemens, Hilton Hotels, Dun & Bradstreet, Dorchester Group and Verind – Durr Group.