Dealing with Conflict at Work

Dealing with conflict is something most of us hate – and at some point or another, we are bound to experience conflict at work.

Whatever the surface reason given for any conflict in your workplace, it is rarely about who did or didn’t make the tea, got promoted, or didn’t do their share of the donkey work.  It is usually more about what is fair, whether everyone is pulling their weight, how resources get shared out and who is perceived to have the most status.  Using other people’s cup or taking stationery without getting the nod from the right person might elicit stinging criticism and raised hackles, but underneath that, the conflict is nearly always about perceived laziness, selfishness, greed or ambition.  In other words conflicting values.

Why does it happen?

Well, conflict at work can take many forms.  We all have some basic needs at work, including things like rewards and recognition, flexible work options, a safe and healthy workplace, training and comfortable interaction with colleagues. It may be that either our organisation or an individual’s way of providing these things does not meet our expectations and then we are disappointed.  Perhaps people are hanging on to ‘old baggage’, things that happened ages ago, which they can’t let go of, or resolve and so they bring their anger to work on a regular basis.

Maybe there’s a personality clash with a colleague or a grievance, team rivalry or broken trust.  Maybe there are threatened redundancies or change in the air.  It nearly always comes down to a clash in values, differences in personality (and therefore approach) or perceived unfairness.  And both parties think they are right!!

The temptation to retaliate against your perceived enemy can be overwhelming, but as you probably know by now, it usually just leads to an escalation of the problem and more hurt and angry feelings.

What can you do about it?

There are loads of suggestions out there offering processes for dealing with conflict at work, but they hardly ever talk about just how hard it is.  If you have ever tried to sort out a problem of this kind before, you’ll know how tricky it can be.  Even if you get past your sweaty palms, dry mouth and hammering heart, you still have to try to get your point across without either crying or resorting to an angry outburst!  So here are some simple suggestions which come from the real world and might help you:

1. Stop and THINK.  It sounds so obvious but it’s really worth stopping to check if the person in question is really trying to wind you up or whether they could be oblivious to what they are doing.  Be honest.  If you think they may not realise how their behaviour is impacting on you, could you talk to them simply about how you perceive the situation?  Sometimes this is enough to stop the behaviour, which is distressing you.


2. Do you need help with sorting this out?  Who can you ask? Your line manager? Your HR advisor?  Someone else in your team?  Talking it through with someone who is not directly involved can be very helpful and they will often come up with ideas you hadn’t thought of.  If appropriate, they could help you formulate a plan for carrying out step 1 above.


3. Do you need to use your organisation’s grievance or disciplinary procedures?  A more serious step, but one that is available to you if steps 1 and 2 have not worked and you can ask your line manager or HR advisor to support you.


4. Do you need outside help, perhaps from a trained mediator?  A mediator will listen impartially to both sides, look for common ground and encourage people to work out how they are feeling and what they would like to happen next.  The crucial thing is that the focus will be on the issues, not the personalities or who is ‘right’.


5. Finally, think about your own skills.  What can you do right now to improve your skills to manage conflict in the future?  What training is available to help you improve your communication skills, particularly listening, influencing, problem solving and recognition of the value of difference?  Do you need to work on your assertiveness?  If you feel more able in these areas, your confidence will increase and you will feel less vulnerable to conflict situations, because you will have some tools to help you.