How to resolve a conflict at work

We all face conflict at work. Reactions range from ‘ostrich-like’ avoidance at one extreme to ‘just losing it’ at the other. Here’s a framework to help you move from conflict to consensus.

First, it’s useful to distinguish two aspects and deal with these differently:

1. What the Conflict is About

In increasing order of difficulty, conflicts arise on:

  • Facts How could there be a difference of opinion on facts? Actually, conflicts relating to ‘facts’ are an everyday occurrence; e.g. “are we/you/the company successful?” Some ‘facts’ are more subjective than others!
  • Methods The next level of difficulty relates to methods: one manager might seek participation and involvement, while another focuses on getting the task ‘out of the door’.
  • Objectives Differences of objectives are even more challenging: a sales manager in one area may focus on growing market share profitably with existing customers, while another may focus on new markets, even unprofitably.
  • Values Finally, the most difficult conflicts are due to differences, not always in personal values like integrity and respect, but in work values. An employee may value customer responsiveness, while his or her manager prioritises process efficiency or operational compliance.

2. How You Handle Conflict

This is determined by your emotional reaction: when not behaving in a totally rational and adult fashion you will tend to cast yourself in one of three roles in the ‘drama triangle’:

The Victim

  • Feels persecuted – and indeed will nominate a persecutor!
  • Wants to be saved – and will look for a ‘rescuer’.
  • Says things like, “You never…”, “It’s not fair…”, “They never/they always…”

The Persecutor

  • Needs a victim.
  • Talks loudly, fingerpoints, betrays irritation.
  • Says things like, “It’s obvious…”, “Can’t you see…”, “Just do it…”

The Rescuer

  • Also needs a victim (and therefore a persecutor)!
  • Prevents the victim taking responsibility by ‘saving’ them.
  • Says, “I’ll talk to him for you…”, “You’re so right…”, “We all feel the same way…”

It’s vital to see that none of these positions is useful or functional – it’s not ‘better’ to be a rescuer than a persecutor. Each role in the drama neatly keeps the other two in place and stops you all having an adult conversation to find a solution. Unless you are very honest with yourself about your feelings, your mental position will ‘leak’ in your words and your body language – and will tend to trigger complementary behaviour in the other players.

Notice that our advice focuses on you managing your behaviour, not fingerpointing the others. This is just playing the drama triangle game – and round you’ll go again!

How to Resolve a Conflict

Before even attempting to address a conflict, take control of your feelings, and restore yourself to rational ‘grown-up’ behaviour. If you need help, get a coach. Don’t even try to sort it out until you can take a balanced view and regain your sense of humour!

  • Then step back and understand the reason for the conflict. If a “factual” conflict, try to discuss and agree a method or way forward. Consensus on this will make it easier to address factual differences, which may even reduce in importance at this stage.
  • If the conflict is about methods, it helps if you find a common objective, for example, an increase in sales, before discussing whose approach is the best.
  • You can best handle a conflict of objectives by aligning on common values to foster. Once you agree that, then the discussion can centre on which objectives uphold the agreed values.
  • Though it can be difficult to get alignment on values, it is vital you understand and respect, not necessarily accept, the other person’s viewpoint. Conflicts get entrenched when you disrespect or ridicule others’ world views. It is entirely acceptable that you conclude a discussion on values “agreeing to disagree”!

Irrespective of the scale of the conflict, we strongly recommend using an experienced facilitator who is outside the culture in which the conflict occurs. At Leaders Lab, we can support you in resolving conflict situations at work, whatever the cause. We ensure all parties’ views are heard and respected, that people stay rational, and that you get a ‘win – win’ outcome.

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Leaders Lab trainers are experienced facilitators