Conflict at work: Positive conflict, Bad conflict and some potential techniques for dealing with it.

Conflict at work: Positive conflict, Bad conflict and some potential techniques for dealing with it.

What is your first reaction when you hear there has been a row at work?

How do feel when you know there is something brewing? There is a tension in the air! There is a phrase I grew up with. “You could cut the atmosphere with a knife!”

For a lot of us the prospect of conflict in the work place (or anywhere for that matter) fills us with dread.

Before we go any further, I believe it must be pointed out that not all conflict in the workspace is a bad thing. Healthy debate and discussion are a sign of a strong functioning team where trust exists, and the team members feel they can challenge one another in a non-personal way to come up with creative and innovative solutions to the issues they are facing. This type of conflict should be encouraged but it does require that the right environment exists. Let’s call this positive or constructive conflict.

What about negative conflict, destructive conflict? The type of conflict that can contribute to the “toxic environment” that is referred to by many employees that have had bad experiences in the workplace.

Among other things destructive conflict can kill relationships, reduce collaboration, destroy communication, increase stress, increase turnover and costs to the company.

What might negative conflict in the workplace look like?

The employee might simply clam up and withdraw.

“All picture and no sound”.

Typically, however the expression says it all!

Alternatively the employee may “blow”.

This could be a tirade of verbal abuse or in extreme cases, physical violence.

What causes negative conflict in the workplace?

Several factors that may give rise to conflict at work. Some of these include:- personality clashes, stress, excessive workload, poor leadership, poor line management, poor performance, confusion in roles or accountability, ambiguity, passive aggressive behaviours, inconsistency, poor communication, fear of change, lack of recognition, negativity.

Dealing with conflict.

Over my time in industry I empirically developed a model/process that I employed to deal with conflict. The fundamental belief I had behind this model is…

 as long as the “opposing parties” or the “waring factions” can remain talking then most issues can be resolved.

The model essentially starts with a dialogue, proceeds to agreeing on the actual issue at play, collaborating to find a solution, trying the solution and then adjusting accordingly.

Things have escalated, what now?!

So this model is all well and good. What about when someone has withdrawn or blown their cool, what then? They have no interest in a dialogue!

This typically happens when an individual’s psychological safety has been threatened. The Fight or Flight response has kicked in. In order to return to dialogue, their psychological safety needs to be restored. How can this be achieved?

Here are some of the techniques I have used. These require practice and in some cased putting your ego to one side!

  • Explain your “positive purpose” e.g. “I know we’ve had a disagreement, I don’t want an argument, we have to work to together on this project, my positive purpose is to meet with you to figure out a way we can do this.”
  • Outline what you “don’t want and what you do want.”g. “I don’t want tension in the team, what I do want is for us to figure out a way of discussing the best way for us to make decisions. Do you think we could talk about that please?”
  • Seek to understand. e.g. “Its pretty clear you are annoyed at something I have said or done, can you please tell what it is that has of upset you.” Once you understand where the other person if coming from and you have “truly listened” you can look to put forward your side of things.
  • Consider where you might be in the wrong and may have caused offence intentionally or unintentionally. Apologize for this but ensure its a genuine apology with no buts!
  • Look to find common ground. We may not always like or connect emotionally with some of the people we work with. This is life. However, if you are prepared to work at it, there will be some common ground. This can then be used as a basis for developing a solution.