by Daniel B. Griffith, J.D., SPHR, SHRM-SCP
When conflict occurs in the workplace, what is your goal? Is it to achieve resolution? If so, is resolution always possible? Is it achievable now? Sometime soon? Ever?
Your answer will depend on the situation you are dealing with. Some conflicts resolve more readily than others. Some conflicts may not resolve, or resolve in a fully satisfactory manner, ever.
Whether managing your own conflict or helping others with their conflict, accept this reality rather than expend time and worry about achieving a goal (complete resolution) that may never be realized.
As a conflict resolution specialist, I am mindful of this quote from Bernard Mayer in Beyond Neutrality: Confronting the Crisis in Conflict Resolution:
“Engaging in conflict means accepting the challenges of a conflict, whatever its type or stage of development may be, with courage and wisdom without automatically assuming that resolution is an appropriate goal. Effective engagement requires finding the right level of depth at which to engage.”
While conflict can be destructive and should at times be avoided, Mayer states, “it is also necessary for social cohesion, social change, and personal growth.” The challenge in addressing conflict is “to help people engage in conflict in a productive and constructive way.”
People stay enmeshed in conflict for many reasons which may require more time, energy, and capability than we currently possess to unpack. It may, therefore, be better to foster conditions that support practices for constructive conflict engagement than force surface outcomes that are not authentically achieved and likely to return people in conflict to the same negative conflict cycle they’ve experienced.
Let’s examine some of these conditions:
Safety. While openly communicating concerns is important, people need to feel they won’t be attacked, that their words and intent won’t be misconstrued, and that the other person will attempt to understand them. Otherwise, employees will avoid necessary interactions or interact minimally as required to get work done. While employees must learn to communicate and express disagreement respectfully and watch their reactions when confronted with difficult messages from others, leaders must also ensure the work environment supports such conversations rather than competitive, win-lose approaches. Safety also applies when employees seek their manager’s support. Leaders must be receptive and non-judgmental as they coach employees to address their conflict challenges.
Time and space. Expecting conflict resolution suggests that individuals in conflict can readily find a way to “work it out” and “get along.” It also suggests urgency and that resolution must be achieved “now.” As employees experience safety to talk and work through differences, they must also experience the safety of time and space to listen, gain new perspectives, reflect on their limitations and contributions to the dispute, and establish new ways of working and communicating with their adversaries. They must also be permitted to “save face,” meaning they must feel they can reconcile with others without having to concede too much, face embarrassment, or feel they have lost or given the other total victory. As employees work matters out, even if awkwardly and not always successfully, leaders must give them time and space to do so rather than push too quickly for complete, and unrealistic, resolution.
Clarity on issues, needs, and their relative importance for achieving resolution. Safety, time, and space provide opportunity for individuals to thoroughly assess their relative needs and interests, which they will likely value differently. One employee may wish for a more collegial relationship while the other wants only a level of collegiality needed to accomplish common goals. They may also differ on work processes, quality and performance standards, timeliness and deadlines, and manner of communicating, meeting, and holding one another accountable. The manager, other team members, and organizational expectations also provide guidance on which issues are vital and which are less important or urgent in necessitating cooperation. Employees in conflict need time and support to sort these issues and understand where each stands before they can meaningfully address them.
Processes for communicating and negotiating. Conflict often occurs because employees communicate, negotiate, respond to conflict, and navigate daily work and life in vastly different ways. They may clash from the beginning of their relationship based on these differences and how they perceive work should be done, how people should perform and behave, and how they should be treated and treat others. The struggle of figuring out the “how” of their interactions may obscure the likely reality that they have more in common about the “what” of their work than they care to acknowledge. The sorting of issues and needs discussed above requires processes for communicating and negotiating about them. Again, we can’t expect immediate results and must provide time, space, and support, including perhaps training and skill building, to help them establish these processes.
Tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty. Even as individuals realize more effective processes for working through differences, they will experience bumps, misunderstandings, and unanticipated situations that will challenge their progress. If the process of conflict engagement has deescalated matters to a point of cooperation, if not full harmony, they must come to understand that ongoing, manageable conflict is a constant, a fact of work life, and a necessity as they work through the challenges that their unique contributions bring to achieve better results. This tolerance further requires giving each other the benefit of the doubt and relinquishing the absolute certainty of one’s own viewpoints and positions — not just at the height of the conflict but always.
Voice and being heard. Conflict often festers and progress stalls when people feel suppressed in discussing their true concerns and discounted as their concerns go unacknowledged. Being able to talk openly and safely about their concerns, and feeling that others are trying to understand and reflect that they understand, even if they disagree, can be half the battle in the movement toward resolution. Some conflict engagement processes may accomplish little more with significant improvement in relationships or change in outcome occurring slowly. If we start by understanding that the journey, and not the result, is paramount and develop and facilitate practices accordingly, we go far in supporting employees to find their voice and manage conflict on their own.