How to Handle Workplace Conflict Straightforwardly and Simply

Some of you may look forward to resolving conflicts at work, confident that a well-handled discussion with your colleague will do the trick. But many more of you probably don’t look forward to tackling situations of conflict and disagreement with your colleagues, and may even avoid trying to resolve conflicts altogether so little confidence do you have that a positive outcome will ensue from the dialogue. In my work as a coach, I have found that many clients eschew conflict, so painful is it for them to handle.

Some of you will be able to point to occasions when the results of a well handled disagreement or conflict were productive for you or your team.  Iron does sharpen iron, and a resolved disagreement or conflict can bring about improved processes, innovations for customers, better dialogue between colleagues, enhanced products and services, and more productive and efficient ways of working.

But most of you will also be able to point to situations in which conflict and disagreement splintered your work groups, fractured relationships and resulted in a situation in which no effective resolution to the underlying issues could be found. Maybe certain issues in your team or workplace have never been resolved, and consequently there is unfinished business sitting between you and other people, circumstances which make some workplace meetings awkward, create discomfort, hinder productivity and reduce service levels.

So why might some conflicts be more difficult to resolve than others?

In my view it is usually because at least one of the parties sets their will against resolution of the issues.  Let’s take a look at some of the key factors that might be playing out in unresolved conflicts in your workplace.  You might like to select one unresolved conflict that affects you and consider it afresh in the light of the following factors.  Take a mental step back from the conflict and decide which of the following elements is in play in regard to the unresolved issues:

  • Is the conflict about disagreements over goals? In other words, do the different parties (you included) want to achieve different and apparently incompatible goals?
  • Is the conflict about what constitutes a fact as opposed to an opinion?  In other words, do the different parties want to give different weight to different factors in the situation?

Let’s consider these two elements considering two more.  In either of these cases, the issues are actually resolvable, even if they might not seem so.  It will take some hard work, but an unresolved conflict which is about either or both of these bullets can be resolved.  Colleagues who might not find it easy to deal with one another will have to sit down and talk it through. They’ll need to be prepared to put their views on the table in a non-judgmental fashion, listen to other perspectives, seek to understand those perspectives, ask questions to clarify what they don’t understand and find a way forward.  Some compromising will be needed, some effort and some thinking. But it is do-able.

What other factors might be affecting the example of an unresolved conflict which you are considering? Here are two more:

  • Is the conflict to do with the key players (you included) having different personal values? In other words, do you value different things such as generating momentum and getting things done quickly as opposed to ensuring quality and mitigating risk by taking the time to plan?
  • Is the conflict to do with the key players having different ideas about which processes, procedures, strategies and tactics are needed? In other words, might they want to achieve the same outcomes but want to approach those outcomes in different ways?

If the answer is yes to either of these two bullets, then again, in either case, the issues can be resolved.  It will mean that the people at the heart of the unresolved conflict will need to talk through their differences, and have the courage to re-examine their own personal values and preferences. They will need to concede some points in order to hold sway on other, but progress can be made even from apparently entrenched positions.

In some more complex cases, the issues may involve all four sets of bullet points.  These issues will require time and application to resolve, but they can be resolved. Where there is a will there is a way.