Real and Imagined
Sometimes conflict in the workplace is real
and sometimes it's imagined.
Like it or not, you have to deal with it either way.
As if real conflicts aren't challenging enough, imagined conflicts are also in play. These are conflicts that feel very real for the people involved, and often have consequences, but there's no reason for the conflict. They're imagined, emotional conflicts. For example, someone may be upset over a perceived injustice that never occurred. Someone else may misconstrue something they hear, causing them to vilify a co-worker without cause. An unintentional slight between two individuals, never even discussed, may end up creating contentious relationships between dozens of people.
Like it or not, you have to deal with real and imagined conflicts in the workplace. Knowing how to manage conflict is a pivotal strength that can assure your success in any organization. Managing conflict poorly has consequences.
How do you manage conflict in a productive and healthy way?
When do you engage and when do you sit out?
How do you avoid being part of the problem?Conflict in the workplace is unavoidable. Falling victim to it, however, is not. Research suggests that conflict is a decisive factor in 50% of resignations. The ability to manage conflict has a huge impact on job satisfaction. The same research shows that conflict plays a role in 90% of involuntary terminations (when an individual doesn't leave by his or her own choice.) For that reason alone, knowing how to navigate conflict is important. Job satisfaction is just an added benefit.
Here are some ways to improve your ability to manage conflict productively in the workplace.
1. Know who you're dealing with.
Conflict is challenging primarily because everyone approaches it differently. To successfully manage conflict, you have to understand the 'conflict personalities' you're dealing with. This is the who, and how, of conflict resolution. Your approach has to vary based on the approach of others, like it or not. It makes conflict resolution much more complex. The better you adapt, the more effectively you can navigate conflict in the workplace.
Avoiders: People who conceal, suffer, or accommodate. You'll run into a lot of people who want to avoid conflict in the workplace at all costs. They suffer quietly or conceal their concerns to avoid situations that are uncomfortable. They may quietly nag to their trusted co-workers, but won't address conflict directly. This is fine most of the time, but it can become toxic in the workplace over time. Unresolved conflict is always just below the surface. It can and does erupt at odd and illogical times if not managed to resolution.
If you're in conflict with someone who is an avoider, you unfortunately carry the burden of finding a way to proactively engage them. It's important to be non-threatening and make it easy for them to speak up. Your best bet is to tell them you believe there's conflict between the two of you and that you'd like to talk, just one-on-one, to see if you can improve your working relationship. If you want to be more subtle, you can tell them you're working on improving relationships in the office; you're wondering if they'd share insights on ways you can improve. It's remarkable how people will take a step forward when asked in a constructive and non-threatening way. It's worth the effort in most cases. Manage conflict with avoiders quietly and confidentially.
Dominators: People who attack, confront, and back-channel. At the opposite end of the spectrum are people who have a natural inclination to attack during times of conflict. They go on the offensive and do their best to dominate and manipulate others to gain ground. Sometimes levels of authority make this tricky, but in many cases you can resolve conflict with dominators using clarity. The most important thing is to focus on the facts as you know them and stand firm in your opinion or recommendation. Don't let them rattle you. Try to determine what you're willing to negotiate in advance and press hard for compromise in those areas.
With regard to back-channeling specifically, one of the most successful approaches I've used is to negotiate conflict privately, but later confirm it in a public setting. A back-channeler is someone who will often agree with you in a discussion, but have no intention of actually moving in the direction you discussed. Their intent is to work the conflict through another channel to get the outcome they want. This is true even if you spend hours together negotiating an outcome. The technique is simply to eliminate their back-channel. In a team meeting or other appropriate forum say, "Bob and I were able to come to agreement on <situation>. We've agreed to a, b and c, with the following adjustments d, e, and f. This benefits the business by x. Bob, is this your understanding as well?" Any back-channeling becomes far less successful if you publicize your agreement.
You won't be successful every time, but don't let dominators win by default. Their approach is toxic and damaging if left unchecked. Don't fight senseless battles, but only walk away if the issue doesn't matter or you know you can't influence the outcome. You may need to bring others into the discussion for rational support. Don't see that as a weakness; it's a tactic. Manage conflicts with dominators publicly and factually.
Collaborators: People who discuss, negotiate, and compromise. Thankfully, there are a lot of people who live in the middle ground when it comes to conflict in the workplace. They may not volunteer to address conflicts, but they'll work to understand and productively resolve conflict when needed, looking for win-win compromises. These are the easiest of conflict resolutions. If you find yourself in conflict with an avoider or dominator, seek out collaborators to help you as possible too. They make great allies.
2. Understand, then resolve.
Yes, I know... it's obvious. But hear me out. People don't like talking about conflict, real or imagined. (Actually, people like talking about conflict a lot. They just don't like talking about it in a productive way, with the actual person involved in the conflict.) We all experience this aversion to conflict at times.
To be successful in any professional setting, you have to be able to participate in productive discussions intended to understand and resolve conflict. This is true whether you're involved directly or facilitating a conflict among others that's impacting your success. It involves listening to others - and expressing yourself - in situations that are uncomfortable. You often have to be creative in getting others to talk about conflict. If you don't understand what's causing a conflict, you can't even think about how to best resolve it. Easier said than done, I know.
Whether you're trying to prevent conflict or address it, you gain advantage by understanding the perceptions and preferences of others. If you know what someone prefers, you're much more likely to find a tenable solution to your conflict. Here are some ideas on how to understand the conflict at hand.
Ask very specific questions. Your goal here is to identify the trigger that's causing conflict at the source. You don't want the answer that's easy or politically correct. You're trying to get to the core issue. "What is it exactly that is causing the concern? Did something specific happen? Is there a repeated issue that's become a problem? Did I say something <or did someone else> that offended you or caused concern? Did you hear something from someone else that upset you? Do you know for sure that what you believe happened is really true? Do we disagree on one particular <decision, action, process, etc>?
Share observations, for added insight. Whether you're involved directly or facilitating for others, a big part of understanding conflict is context. When you share observations in a productive way, others are more likely to do so as well. "I sense that you respond <this way> when I talk about <this thing>; is that the case? It seems like we have conflict more often when we're <in this situation> than at other times. Do you agree? It seems as though it bothers you when I <do this> but I'm not sure I understand why? It seems as though we agree on <this, this and this> but not <that>? Is that true?"
Understand preferences. When two people are in conflict, one of them wants the other to think or act differently. That sounds too simple, but it's true. Why not ask them directly what they prefer? "What do you think we could do differently to resolve this conflict? What would you like to see happen? What can I start or stop doing, to help us resolve this situation and prevent it from happening again? Would you be willing to consider <this approach> rather than <that approach> because it allows us to <gain this benefit>? Where do you think we have common ground? What key issue do we need to address?"
Negotiate with your eye on the prize. If you pay attention, people generally tell you what they want. They also tell you what they don't want. The road between the two is your territory for compromise and negotiation. Keep your eye on what really matters to you, but also keep it on what matters to them. There's almost always common ground. "It sounds like what matters to you is <this>. What matters to me is <that>. If I give on <this> and you give on <that> it seems as though we both get close to what we want. Can we agree to disagree, but compromise on <this solution>?" I know it sounds ridiculously easy. To the contrary, it's always challenging. But if you listen to the hints you're given, you can usually land on a compromise worth finding.With these insights, you're well-prepared to consider your options. You're also much better positioned for a successful outcome.
3. Engage or sit out based on what matters.
Knowing when to engage and when to sit out of conflict is a hard call for most people to make. Below are the guidelines I use regularly. I ask myself the following types of questions. More importantly, I trust my instincts 100% of the time in these situations. Some of these questions may help you too.
Is this my issue? Do I own responsibility for the situation causing the conflict? Am I being negatively impacted by it? Am I the best person to resolve it? If the answer is no, I turn and walk away.
Do I know enough? Have I gotten all the information I need from the right people to understand the conflict? What information do I need and who has it, before I take ownership for resolving it? People love to send you into battle to do their bidding. I've learned to make sure I'm informed first.
Is this a real conflict or imagined one? Is there a tangible issue at play, business or personal, that is causing conflict? Are one or more parties involved in this conflict completely confused as to why it exists? If it's real, I dig in. If it's imagined, I dig in only if it impacts my ability to be successful.
Is this a personal issue? Am I having a personality conflict with another person? Is someone picking a fight? Is someone trying to divert attention from one issue by highlighting another? Is it merely annoying or interfering with my work or the work of others? Is it damaging to my reputation? I use care with personal conflicts. If the impact is low, sometimes it's better to leave it alone. But when the stakes are high, I work to clip it fast.
Am I causing this conflict? Do I find myself in a situation where I suddenly realize I'm causing a conflict? Am I picking a fight? Is it intentional or accidental? Is it warranted or not? Am I willing to see it through to the end? Have I thought about the possible outcomes? Is it worth it? If a conflict matters, pursue it. Picking fights, however, is dumb. I try to take responsibility for resolving any conflict I start. If I can make it go away, I do.
One more thought on engaging in conflict vs. sitting out. It's hard to navigate conflict successfully when you marry yourself to an outcome that has to do with winning vs. resolving a conflict. Similarly, you may be compelled at certain points by a need to grand-stand on a particular issue. Oh, the lure of the soapbox. I've talked before about having a personal compass of some sort to guide your thoughts and behaviors. Never is that more important than during conflict: Am I doing the right things? Am I doing them for the right reasons? Am I doing them to the best of my abilities? In conflict, all of that matters. Only engage in conflict if you understand the issue, you're clear on your role in addressing it, and your personal motivation isn't coloring your intent a brighter shade than it deserves.4. Don't believe your own stories.
I recently read an article by Dr. Tammi Lenski, a well-known conflict mediator and consultant. In her article she shared the quote: "Don't believe everything you think." Her theory is that conflicts are framed largely by stories. In any given conflict, you tell yourself a story about what happened, how it happened, and why. The more you tell yourself the story, the more you believe it. It's the truth. Except that it's not.
The best way to effectively navigate conflict in the workplace is to keep yourself in check. Don't let your stories run laps around your reality. This is where imagined conflict comes from. Ask yourself what's true - and what isn't - when you're faced with a conflict. Challenge yourself to look at a situation without ego to see if your response is emotional. The more abstractly you can view the facts vs. your stories about a situation, the better. You'll respond with greater insight and less ego every time. That's a great recipe for success in navigating conflict.
You can manage conflict productively in any workplace by being intentional about when and how you engage. It isn't always easy and it isn't generally fun, but it is an incredibly valuable skill. Know who you're dealing with, and make sure you have all the right information before you get involved. Ask questions, share observations, and commit to positive outcomes. Negotiate with your eye on the prize - both yours and the other person's.
Be thoughtful about when to engage and when to sit back. Not all situations and circumstances require your involvement to end favorably. (I'm still learning that lesson.) Don't believe the stories you tell yourself without stopping to look with a fresh perspective. Sometimes you'll find the conflict isn't even real. Other times, you'll find ways to resolve it without ego coming into play.
Managing conflict well contributes directly to your success in the workplace. It also makes you a better team member, a better employee, and a better boss. The fact that you'll be more satisfied at work is icing on the cake. There's no conflict in that.