When faced with a conflict, you have a variety of options for handling it. You might choose to handle a conflict one way on a certain day, but then choose to face conflict in another way on a different day.
To help you get started, you can begin to think about whether you want to avoid, confront, or delay the conflict.
Even if this is just a starting point for figuring out what to do with conflict in the workplace, it is going to help you start moving from 'stuckness' to smoothness.
Think of this section as how we often react to conflict, and the more we can think about our reactions, the more we can use this information to help us in times of tension and turmoil.
Do You Avoid It?
At first, conflict might not look like something that needs attention. It might seem small, so you might choose to avoid it altogether.
Some reasons to go ahead and avoid the conflict include:
- The conflict is not about work.
- The conflict is not affecting the activities of the team.
- The conflict has happened before, and was resolved before.
- The conflict is limited to a few people.
When you are looking at conflict, there will certainly be different degrees of severity. Someone who is mad about a person taking their lunch out of the refrigerator does not warrant as much attention as someone who might have stolen money from petty cash, of course.
At the same time, avoidance of conflict can become problematic when the problem is bigger.
If conflict is consistently avoided:
- Teams can lose faith in management. When a team notices that management never steps in for conflict, especially when the team needs help, the team can begin to lose faith and respect for managers. It can be helpful for leadership to come up with a list of situations in which they might step in and start to help.
- Teams can stop trusting each other. When conflict is consistently avoided, the teams will stop trusting each other. They might continue to feel that conflict is present, but since the overall attitude is not to deal with it, there is always tension and distrust.
- Employees will not know how to handle bigger conflicts. If a team cannot or will not handle smaller conflicts, then the team will not know how to manage more extensive situations.
- Employees can feel undervalued. A team that does not feel like anyone cares is a team that feels like they are not valued by the company. As a result, they may not want to continue to work for that particular organization.
Avoiding conflict is sometimes warranted, up to a point. Though there are no rigid rules to follow, it can help for companies to create a list of situations when they will step in.
This can help to take the guesswork out of a situation, and it can ensure that they are stepping up when employees need help.
Do You Confront It?
For some people in business, they feel the best way to deal with conflict is to meet it head on. Some feel that the only way to manage any sort of conflict is to confront it immediately. This is thought to help stop anything from becoming a larger problem.
There are many great reasons to confront conflict immediately.
- When it is not a new problem.
- When the same person is involved.
- When it goes against rules or regulations or hinders safety.
- A person is being hurt in the process.
- The problem is ongoing.
You can tell when you need to step in, whether you are a manager or you are an employee. If a conflict is going to cause troubles at work, it is time to step in and confront it before it begins to affect productivity or safety.
However, this is not always the best option either.
Sometimes, confronting all conflict can lead to:
- Teams feeling a loss of power. If teams are not given the opportunity to manage conflict in the way that works best for them, and instead they are told to follow a certain method of confrontation, they can feel disempowered in their roles.
- Too much energy put toward smaller issues. Of course, the more attention that is given to the conflicts that happen, the less energy will be given to more important projects and situations.
- Too much energy toward conflict. If there becomes an attitude of looking for conflict to confront, that might create the very thing that you are trying to avoid.
At the same time, it might be a matter of looking at different ways to confront conflict. It might not mean that you have to argue or demote a person in the process.
Instead, if you can look into and use the collaborative style of engaging conflict, you might be able to work through and with positive results.
Do You Delay It?
When you delay facing conflict, you are avoiding it, with the intention of coming back to the problem when you have a clearer sense of what is happening.
This makes sense when:
- You are not sure what is happening.
- You do not have the resources or time to manage the problem.
- There are other pressing priorities.
- You need to call in professional help for the matter.
Sometimes, your first reaction may not be the best one, especially if emotions are flaring and people are upset by what is happening around them.
Instead, you might want to step back and help a person by doing nothing for a while. Let the people in the conflict know that you are waiting to see how things turn out, but that you are willing to step in when the time is right.
In many cases, this technique can help to empower and motivate people to do things on their own.
On the other hand, delaying conflict support can:
- Create ideal circumstances for bigger problems. Sometimes, when you let something go for too long, it can make it more likely that a little conflict will spiral into something much bigger.
- Make a manager or team member look less skilled in navigating conflict. If management is perceived to be unsure instead of being committed to simply waiting a little bit, then this might have an impact on the team members.
- Cause other priorities to push the conflict management further and further away. The more you delay anything, the more likely it is that something else might get in the way, and cause the conflict to never be addressed.
Delaying a decision or an action has its merits. For those who like to spend more time deliberating on a plan, this can be a way to ensure that you have the time you need. Moreover, it can help to have a clear date for stepping in.
The Moment You Notice Conflict
You have a number of options when you first notice conflict in the workplace. While you could jump right in and you could do something about it, sometimes a more measured approach can be a good idea.
Here is a quick reference guide that you can use to make sure that you are doing the best thing for the situation at hand.
- Find out what is going on.
- Decide on the importance. Is it affecting others? Is it a safety issue? Is there a problem with delaying an action?
- Gather information and resources.
- Confront the situation, as requested and needed.
- Come up with a collaborative approach.
- Talk things out.
- Listen to each other.
- Make a plan for success.
- Try the plan.
- Reevaluate the plan in a few months.
The more you can work this succession of steps, the more likely you are to manage conflict without even calling it that or even realizing that it could have been more problematic than it was.
When you are faced with conflict, you have a few possible reactions: avoid, confront, or delay. By thinking about the problem and about the possible outcomes to your decisions, you can take the best step for resolution.
When Conflict Cannot Be Resolved
One of the things that you probably do not want to hear is that some conflicts cannot be resolved. Even though this is something that is possible, it does not mean that everything will be challenging at work.
You can live with some conflict, depending on how it affects the organization as a whole.
Why Some Conflicts Lack a Solution (at the Moment)
When you look at conflict in the world, you can see there are some common themes that make people less likely to agree or even to listen to each other.
- A lack of common values.
- A lack of common experiences.
- A lack of clear goals.
- Unwillingness to compromise or work together.
This is why so many books on management will tell leaders to create a mission statement for their company. When this is in place, the company will have a clear set of common values with everyone in agreement.
When this can be agreed upon, then there are fewer instances of conflict, as people know what they are supposed to uphold (even if they do not agree with the ideas on a personal level).
People get along when they share the same ideas and when they are able to meet each other on some common ground. However, when there is simply no way to do this and no willingness to try, conflict can become a part of the culture, and a part of what new employees believe is 'normal.'
Does this mean there is no solution for the conflict? No, of not.
However, there are also many reasons the conflict is still happening, and without someone to try something new, things are likely not to budge.
Have You Done All You Can Do?
When you are in a situation that you feel cannot be changed, you need to start thinking about whether you are truly being honest with yourself.
Have you done all that you can possibly do?
- Have you talked to the other person? Think about whether you have actually gone and talked to the other person to whom you needed to talk. Have you sat down with them and had an honest conversation about what is happening and what you wish might happen to make things better.
- Have you listened to the other person? Not only do you need to think about whether you have talked to the other person, but you also need to consider whether you have listened to the other person. Do you understand their needs and have you come to understand what they want also?
- Have you come up with solutions? Consider whether you have spent time coming up with practical solutions for the perceived problems. Have you taken the time to think through what you know?
- Have you tried suggested solutions? If you have already had a chance to make solutions or to try solutions from others, have you followed through on your part? If you have not tried any solutions yet, then you need to do so to find out if they are workable.
- Have you turned to a manager or a conflict management professional? When you have exhausted all of your skills, then you need to turn to someone who might have more skills and experience than you may have. This can help you better see solutions you had not considered.
- Have you tried managing your stress levels? Although you might not want to hear this, if you are not a person who manages stress well, it can make you prone to being in conflict with others. Are you taking care of yourself?
- Have you corrected any past mistakes you have made? If a conflict began because of something you did, have you spent any time trying to fix things? Have you apologized if you have needed to apologize?
The more you can look at what you have done (or not done), the more you will see whether you did all that you could possibly do.
Chances are good that you have probably not done some of the items on this list, so give them a try to see how they work out for you.
When this is the case, here are ways that you can handle the situation, and ensure that you are not dragged into the problem, or that you do not become too frustrated by what you see around you.
- Do what you can do. If you can help in a situation that is rife with conflict, it might be a good idea to do so. You might step in to see if you can manage the conflict now so everyone can work together. However, if you cannot do anything, step away to avoid making anything worse.
- Keep your opinions to yourself. It might also be helpful for you to keep any opinions you have about the conflict to yourself. This does not mean that you should keep your ideas for solutions to yourself, but you may want to keep your opinions quiet so as not to become a part of the problem.
- Do not get caught up in gossip. Although you may want to say things about one person or another, it can cause even more troubles in the workplace. Instead, keep your head about you, and keep gossip out of the office. Keep your gossip for outside of work, if you have to say anything.
- Do not take sides. Even in situations where it is clear that one side is the one to follow, you do not want to choose sides and accidentally cause more trouble than was there in the beginning. Think about how you can remain neutral, to ensure everyone feels that you are supporting him or her.
- Remember your job. As with any advice about work, bring your daily focus back to your job and doing it well. When you do this, you will still be the employee to count on.
In some work environments, conflict may be necessary to create an environment of creativity. However, this might not be something that is helpful for you.
If you cannot do anything about the situation, then you can also try:
- Having your own space. If it is possible, you will want to have your own office space so you can escape and hide away from the conflict around you. After all, if you do not have to be a part of the problem, then you should be focused on your own work.
- Interacting with certain team members. When you can, make sure that you interact at work with people whom you do not have conflict with, and who you can engage with to problem solve. Although you may not be able to work with them all the time, the more you can surround yourself with people who are like you, the easier it will be on your mental health and productivity.
- Learning more communication skills. To help the situation at work, make sure that you are learning all that you can about how to communicate in difficult situations. When you do this, you will make sure that you are ready to handle any new conflict that comes your way.
You do not want to be stuck in a place that is always mired in conflict, but sometimes, there is little you can do. When you can accept it and do your best to stay out of the tricky parts, you will be able to manage your work, perhaps until you find another job.
When an Employee Should Be Reassigned or Let Go
Whether you are in a position of management or you are an employee who has noticed the problems of a certain team member, you have probably asked yourself these questions:
- Is the conflict because of this one person?
- Would it just be better to let that person go?
When faced with a conflict or a series of troubles at work that all seem to include one person (or are started by one person), it can seem as though the answer is simple.
However, this may not be the best possible solution for the problem.
You will want to follow a few steps to determine accurately whether firing or reassigning a person is the best choice.
- Determine the problem. Before you can engage any conflict, you need to know what is happening and you need to get the full story. You cannot assume that something is happening. Get all of the facts to see what has happened, if there is history to what has happened, and what many people have experienced as a part of this conflict.
- What else is happening? Talking to the person who is continuously involved in situations of conflict can help you better understand their situation. They might have a personal situation that is affecting their ability to function well in the office. Knowing this can often help the affected worker and those around them. It can give a little more space for working through the problem, or possibly allowing the worker to move to a new role, until they have worked out their personal issues.
- Are there ways things can change? Again, looking at the bigger picture of the company is essential when a conflict occurs multiple times. Check to see if there are ways that that systems might change, or there might be ways that the workloads have to change. What other things can be changed to support those workers who are having trouble? If you are not sure what needs to be changed, ask those who are involved.
- Who is committed to change? When change needs to happen, you need to have everyone committed. This will ensure that everyone has the commitment (at least for now) to do what needs to be done. You might even want to create a contract so you have in writing that everyone is going to be on board with the changes.
- Can we agree to try something new? Perhaps this is a time when everyone could try something new, and when everyone agrees, it can become an exciting time. When you try something new, it is not attached to old stories of conflict, which often can set a new course for less conflict in the workplace.
- Is the other person continuing to cause troubles? Even with all of the planning and all of the work together, there may still be troubles with the person who seems to be the root cause of the issues. If this is the case, then it is time to think about whether they are in the right place.
If everyone else in the office is on board with making changes and with becoming less focused on conflict, but one person is not trying to change, it may become necessary to let them go.
To be certain about this decision, it may be wise to suspend the person in some way or remove them from work for a period. This will allow the rest of the office to see if this person was the cause of the troubles, or if they were just one facet of the issue.
Conflict may not always be simple to repair or to end, despite the best of intentions. When conflict continues to be problematic, it might be worthwhile to seek out a more drastic solution, when you have exhausted all other possibilities.