Career Tips 101: Dealing With Workplace Conflict


workplace-conflictCareer Tips 101: A Short Guide To Dealing With Workplace Conflict

For many of us in the workforce today, the workplace is where we spend a considerable amount of our waking day. In fact, our superiors, peers, mentors and colleagues at work often take on the persona of our extended family. And the reality is, that in any family — conflict is inevitable.

In order to maintain our sanity and be our best on the job, it is imperative that we learn to deal with workplace conflict. Failing to deal with it, or even dealing with it inappropriately, could have serious effect on both your professional and personal lives.

The Root Of The Matter

Workplace conflicts can often be attributed to two main roots:

  • Professional differences
  • Personality clashes

While the former is relatively easier to spot and deal with, conflicting personalities are more difficult to resolve and reconcile. That’s because the duelling parties often do not resort to conflict overtly, but rather indulge in it covertly. However, sooner or later, the signs of workplace disagreement manifest themselves in both professional as well as personal conflicts.

The key to diffusing a conflict in the workplace is to understand its roots.

Where a professional difference of opinion in the root, workplace conflicts may (in some cases) be healthy; that’s because it brings forward alternate points of view about a professional situation. You may end such conflict reasonably through dialogue and discourse.

The key to diffusing a conflict in the workplace is to understand its roots.

With personality clashes at its roots however, conflicts in the workplace tend to be self-destructive to all parties, and often result in bitter endings to previously good workplace relationships.

The Key To Successful Resolution

To reach a successful resolution of workplace conflict, it is important to pay close attention to what’s driving it.

Here are six practical guidelines that you can use to diffuse the situation:

Timing the resolution: In case of professional disagreements, the project or task at the root of the conflict will dictate when you should deal with the issue. Time your diffusion initiatives so that the task/project isn’t jeopardised. With personality conflicts, it’s often good to wait for an “opportune” moment (a festive occasion, a promotion, a birthday, holidays etc.) when the other party is more amenable to dealing with the issue.

In both cases however, never charge to a resolution immediately upon experiencing a conflict. Let a cooling off period lapse first, otherwise the conflict could escalate.

Do your homework: If the conflict stems from a professional matter, such as:

  • Work assignments
  • Work scheduling
  • Pay and benefits
  • Contradictory directions from co-managed team leaders (e.g. in a Matrix organisation)
  • Performance appraisals

It may be a good idea to have a chat with Human Resources first, and familiarise yourself with company policies around those matters, before approaching your supervisor or boss.

Reasons for personal conflicts are harder to pinpoint. Speaking with co-workers or mutual friends, on the promise of confidentiality and anonymity, about the other party’s motives for the conflict, might help you better prepare to deal with the situation.

Be forthright: The best way to deal with workplace conflict is to work directly with the other party. Often, meeting one-on-one to clear the air is all it takes to diffuse and resolve an unpleasant situation at work. Optionally, if direct contact/communication isn’t an option, use trusted mediators (more on that later).

Be open to ideas: Regardless of who you may think is responsible, you should be open to ideas from the other party on how to deal with the situation.

Be unbiased: Workplace conflicts of both stripes (professional and personal) stem from the fact that one party (or both) think the other is being unreasonable. The best way to deal with such situations is to be unbiased. It’s extremely hard to do – especially if you are a party to the conflict – but doing so can yield unimaginable rewards!

Use mediators: If you believe that the conflict is too deep for either of the duelling parties to resolve by themselves, then you should enlist help. On a professional level, a peer, a Supervisor or a colleague that’s at arm’s length from the issue would be ideal.

The best way to deal with a personality conflict at work, is to enlist common friends or acquaintances (either from in or outside the workplace) to mediate. However, the mediation must be done with both parties consent; otherwise the conflict could escalate and engulf others (your mediators!).

Learning From Experience

Workplace conflicts are inevitable; but are a great opportunity for you to learn about how life at the office works.

Once a conflict has been successfully dealt with, it may be a good idea to document (either formally or mentally) how you dealt with the situation. For instance, if you reacted emotionally or in anger during the crisis, then you should proactively take steps to equip yourself with strategies that will better prepare you to deal with the next challenge when (NOT IF…but when!) it arises.