There is no running away from conflict. In both our personal or professional lives, disagreements and conflicts are sure to abound, whether we like it or not. Sometimes we’re the cause of it, while many times we find that it thrusts itself upon us.

While it may seem that conflicts can arise from any number of avenues, workplace conflicts can usually be identified as pertaining to specific types and sources. In particular, The HBR Guide to Dealing with Conflicts identifies three specific types of conflict that arise in the workplace:

  1. Relationship related – usually stemming from personality clashes
  2. Task related – arising due to differences in getting the job done (goal disagreement)
  3. Status related – based on differences over who is in charge

Most, if not all, workplace conflicts fit within at least one of these three types.

Conflict as a Positive

Before we proceed to examine how we can deal with these workplace conflicts, it might be wise for us to explore a rarely acknowledged opinion.

Despite the negative connotation that conflict has within our lives, it can also brings benefits

For example, a task related conflict actually gives us opportunities to seek better solutions, where otherwise we might have stuck with a sub par one. A status related conflict allows team members to gain clarity on their roles and accountabilities, leading to fewer misunderstandings and better performance going forward. And almost every workplace conflict offers the opportunity for leaders to bring their team together to create and sustain innovative practices and responses.

Rather than simply dismiss conflicts as a negative, we should strive to develop a culture that accepts its inevitability, and embraces these moments to improve team dynamics, innovation, and business results. Instead of quickly dissolving any conflict and sweeping it under the carpet, our approach needs to embrace the mindset of maximising the opportunity to improve longer-term business outcomes.

Your Alternatives

Our approach to dealing with conflict can take one of four paths. These are: Avoidance, Your Way, Giving In, and Collaborate.

Avoidance

In the avoidance state, you essentially do NOTHING! As incredulous as this may sound, this option is sometimes not a bad choice. When you don’t have the time, resources, or required information to deal with the conflict at any point, consider using this option to buy more time. Such a move should only be used sparingly, to allow us to properly address the issue at a later date. If we default to the avoidance state indefinitely, the same conflict will arise over and over again, causing deeper rifts within our team.

Your Way

With this, one chooses to ignore everything and everyone else, and seeks to propagate a solution that is based purely on individual objectives and goals, disregarding the opinions of others. While using this approach might seem to bring the greatest benefit for you right now (after all, you get exactly what you want), you will need to consider if it is worth the destruction of goodwill and harmony that might follow. There are some situations though, we need to choose this option, despite any negative repercussions that might result. These usually relate to issues like compliance, health and safety, and integrity. When it comes to issues like these, and you stand on the side of reason, stick to your guns and don’t compromise.

Give In

The third alternative is accommodating to the wishes and demands of the other party completely, letting him/her have their way. If the issue at hand is of no significant importance to you, and maintaining a cordial relationship is critical to moving forward, this option can be considered. Another positive is that this saves all parties a significant amount of time from any back and forth that might ensue. As long as your actions are framed correctly and not portrayed as weakness, you also gain leverage for future negotiation.

Collaborate

The collaborative approach is all about confronting the conflict from a fair and unbiased point of view, looking for a win-win outcome for all involved. Although this might seem like the runaway best option, it takes the most time and energy. You need to create an opportunity to sit down and talk it out, letting go of any biases to see the situation from many points of view, truly empathising with all players. Although this option is the hardest to execute upon, it’s the alternative that builds respect and trust among all involved. From a long-term standpoint, there is no better option than this.

The “Best” Option

In a majority of workplace conflict situations, you would be wise to default to the collaborative approach. Building upon that, here are a few tips to consider when we recognise a conflict and attempt to deal with it:

  • Identify the type of conflict before you – Is it related to roles, relationship or status?
  • Identify the source of the conflict
  • Step out and take a broader perspective
  • Using data and information: share your view of the conflict situation and seek out common understanding
  • Use any common areas of agreement to develop possible solutions
  • Have an answer to the question “What is the outcome you want?”
  • When responding, show empathy and understanding
  • Be prepared to be flexible in the final outcome
  • Focus on the issue and situation, not on the person
  • Consider how this conflict can play a positive role in the overall objective

Thanks for reading. Let me know if I can be of any help. Here’s my email: [email protected]