Handling Conflicts At Work

Handling Conflicts At Work

Handling Conflicts At Work

Last updated date : November 03, 2021 

In any team there will be a mix of different people, personality’s, and not everyone will share the same opinions. Learning to handle conflicts at work is a natural part of any organisational structure. Handling conflicts at work is deeply rooted in our people skills, and healthily resolving conflict can be learnt by anyone. 

Chapter 1:
What is Conflict?

It usually arises when two or more people form a disagreement, resulting from a clash in their needs, desires, or values. This can either lead to silent tension or even acts of aggression. 

People work in different ways, and they have unique thought processes, beliefs, attitudes, communication styles, and cultures. When managed effectively, these differences can cause teams to create successful projects, but if poorly managed can lead to conflict. 

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Chapter 2:
How Does Work Conflict Occur?

Work conflict can come from different types of behaviour or events. For example, personality clashes, customer dissatisfaction, discrimination, bad performance reviews, employee dissatisfaction, misinformation (especially between departments), peer rivalry, and inadequate management styles. 

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Chapter 3:
Should you Avoid Conflict in the Workplace? 

While some conflicts may seem too small to warrant speaking out at the office, avoiding conflict may make the situation worse. Conflict itself isn’t a bad thing. It is our perception of the conflict and the way we choose to approach it.

Avoiding conflict can lead to unspoken resentments, which over time may build up and cause arguments. Instead, the best way to handle conflict at work is to resolve the issue straight away. It squashes the tension and lets the team focus on what needs doing.

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Chapter 4:
What drives Conflict?

Generally, there are two drives of conflict at work; competition and miscommunication. When an employee has a rivalry with another or information hasn’t been clearly communicated between colleagues, it can cause conflict.

The typical behaviours displayed in conflict: 

  1. Defensiveness
  2. Displaying forcefulness or being uncooperative
  3. Use of discriminatory behaviour
  4. People pleasing
  5. Constant disagreements
  6. Feeling a sense of control or power when another person is reduced in an argument
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Chapter 5:
Types of Conflicts

Differing Goals

● Competition – a conflict of interest at work is when two people have competing goals. The two may begin trying to outdo each other or reduce one another, causing productivity to suffer. 

Resources Conflict

● A Lack of Them – A lack of resources links into the idea of competition as scarcity means that competition will likely arise. 

● Power Struggle – If another department or person is receiving more time or money, resentment can surface. 

Personality Clash

  • Positive vs Negative – Usually between the ‘go-getter’ employee and the ‘procrastinator’, tensions begin due to their differences in attitude towards their work. 
  • Background – Differences in people’s culture, upbringing, and therefore methods of work and communication can lead to disagreements in the workplace.

Also, there are different communication styles, like assertive, passive, aggressive, or even passive-aggressive. These communication styles often clash with one another, and even two assertive people begin competing for authority. 

Information-Processing

  • What We Focus On – All of us process information differently, some fast, some slower. Also, it affects some behaviours, like whether we say it as it is or if we think before we talk. So, part of handling conflicts at work is understanding that everyone thinks differently.

Difference in Values

  • Company Values & Individual Values – Many people choose a job because the company fits their values, but perhaps not all of them will. That can cause a clash of interests in teams and even between the boss and their employees. 
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Chapter 6:
Stress and The Fight-or-Flight Response

Research has seen an overlap between stress and conflict at work. Employees usually cite stress and heavy workloads as the major instigating factor. In addition, stress releases adrenaline which increases blood flow and helps create the fight-or-flight response.

You will notice when a conflict begins that your body becomes warmer and your breathing short and quick. This is your nervous system’s response to a threat; humans developed this natural instinct to survive against predators.  

Although we no longer fight or flee for our lives, stressful situations trigger the same response, so managing stress is one way of resolving conflicts at work.  

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Chapter 07:
Take a Deep Breath - It’s Scientifically Proven

In any confrontation at work or home, simply taking a deep breath is a great way to reduce stress and calm the nervous system. As one scientific review puts it, taking a deep and slow breath: 

“Increases comfort, relaxation, pleasantness, vigour and alertness, and reduced symptoms of arousal, anxiety, depression, anger, and confusion.” 

Although taking a deep breath will not resolve the conflict, it will give you the time to respond from a less emotionally charged place.  

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Chapter 08:
How Self-Esteem Plays a Role in Conflict

Self-esteem is the idea of self-respect, and it plays a role in the conflict. Psychologists characterise it as a part of the personality, and it is an essential part of the way we communicate and affects our level of assertiveness.

The psychologist Abraham Maslow coined the concept of the hierarchy of needs, a pyramid showing behavioural motivations. The bottom of the pyramid has the basic needs we have to survive (food, shelter, etc.), and the top two are esteem and self-actualisation. 

Our esteem needs accomplishment and prestige. While the top tier (self-actualisation) is when we have achieved our full potential and accept ourselves and others.

Therefore, those with low self-esteem may struggle to express their needs or wants because they remain in a kind of survival mode. This can cause absenteeism or high employee turnover, as they are unable to face dealing with conflict at work.

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Chapter 09:
How to Resolve Conflicts at Work

Mindset Towards Conflict

It is impossible to change the behaviour or thoughts of others, but we can shift our own perceptions. So, instead of looking at conflict as something to be diffused straight away, perhaps the approach should be to see it as an exciting opportunity for transformation. 

Within any conflict is a chance to learn and foster a deeper sense of understanding for those who are different from ourselves. Instead of trying to outdo and gain power over our peers, we all have unique skill sets that can create incredible things when united.

Cooperation Rather than Competition

Conflict is a chance to show cooperation as it recognises the interconnection of two differences. It lends way to open conversations, mutual respect, and collaboration. 

4 Examples of Cooperative Patterns: 

  1. Saying “we” instead of “you”, i.e. “we have a problem with…” or “we can find the solution to…” 
  2. Agree to disagree, accepting that you won’t agree with everyone all the time, and that’s a good thing
  3. Actively listening to the other person’s opinion rather than preparing to retaliate
  4. Finding a compromise together so that each party feels heard and validated

Remain Impartial

It is impossible to remain completely unbiased at all times, due to our upbringing, education, environment, and experiences. These are what create unconsciously stored biases. Take a football match, for example, two audience members watching from opposing teams will view the same game completely differently. 

That same phenomenon happens after an argument or conflict. Although remaining completely impartial all the time is nearly impossible, it can help us to be aware of our own biases. Take yourself out of the situation and ask yourself whether your thoughts on your ‘opposition’ are from a bias opinion of them.

Listen – Repeat – Praise

Listen to those you conflict with, repeat what they say to clarify if you understand, and congratulate them when you see signs of progress. Becoming competent at having these difficult conversations takes time, but it can be done if you remain actively engaged and model neutral language.

Set Time Limits on Discussions

One-to-one meetings that have a clear time limit help to facilitate these types of healthy conversations. Try setting a thirty-minute appointment and outline what is causing the conflict, and plan steps all parties can take to resolve the issue. 

The time limit will help avoid the discussion escalating into a heated debate or argument. There is always time to schedule another meeting if it isn’t resolved in the initial one.

Take a Time Out

When you notice that yourself or the other person is becoming angry, kindly state that you will take a few moments and return to the discussion later. Learning to resolve conflict is also about understanding when to take time out to compose yourself. 

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Chapter 10:
Managing Conflict

Brainstorm – As a team leader or manager, you will have to learn how to handle conflict. Learning to brainstorm with those in disagreement can help create a resolution with those involved. 

Confront – The proactive approach to conflict is better than letting it simmer. Seek it out and get to the heart of the issue while trying to remain unbiased. For example, get two employees to state their issues with one another on paper, then take them through resolution strategies.

The truth – Conflict helps us get to the reality of how people are feeling. It also requires honesty, clarity, and empathy to resolve it. 

Perception – Each individual has their perception of the world around them. As a manager, you need to be aware of everyone’s perceptions and use that to develop collaborative solutions. 

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Chapter 11:
Avoid Labelling People 

Part of our perception is the labels we put on others. When you first meet someone, the mind’s natural instinct is to prejudge them based on who we perceive them to be. Often those judgements are carried into the rest of the relationship. 

Phrases like “He/ she doesn’t do anything” or “my manager is annoying”, or “this customer hates me”. These labels force us to think of people as their behaviours rather than separating the person and their emotions. Also, we forget what our managers boss might be telling them to do the behaviours we find ‘annoying’. 

For example, the ‘annoying manager’ might have been told to continuously check up on their team.

Instead, looking at those we are in conflict with through a compassionate lens can transform these perceptions. Try looking at them with curiosity. For example, if a customer is rude, ask yourself what may have happened to them to affect them in this way? 

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Chapter 12:
Uncertainty Can Breed Anxiety & Work Conflict

Have you had the feeling of uncertainty when going to an interview? That sinking-stomach feeling that incites fear of the unknown. The unknown is something we face at work all the time, and it can cause us to feel fear, anxiety, and that can lead to conflict. 

Our sense of uncertainty with different types of personalities can cause clashes. Although it may seem counterintuitive, getting to know those we are in conflict with better can help diffuse this uncertainty.

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Chapter 13:
Developing Compassion For Resolving Conflicts At Work

Empathy is a fantastic tool for handling conflicts at work. To be able to use compassion as a bridge for understanding others takes practice. It begins with showing compassion to yourself and then bringing kindness into disputes. 

Examples of Compassionate Behaviour: 

  1. Forgiving people (and yourself) for mistakes 
  2. Offering help to those around you
  3. Listening to colleagues without judgement
  4. Praising employees
  5. Noticing how others are feeling
  6. Being mindful about your language, tone, and perceptions
  7. Separate the human being from their behaviour at work
  8. Practice these with an awareness that you won’t always get it right. Refer back to number one.
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Chapter 14:
The practice - Handling conflicts at work like a pro

Handling conflicts at work is a balance of speaking honestly about the problems you face and being patient with those around you. Keeping a growth mindset when it comes to conflict means that you are more likely to accept conflict as a tool to help you learn. 

“Conflict exists strictly as an opportunity to raise our consciousness” – C. G. Jung

Learn to accept work conflict as a part of interpersonal communication, and that mutual respect between employees is achievable. Conflict helps us get to the heart of true feelings. Although we can’t handle it to our best ability 100% of the time, we can learn from every conflict we encounter. 

Become a pro at handling conflicts at work with our support team of psychologists and see conflict as an opportunity to become a better version of yourself.

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