Addressing Conflict in the Workplace

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By Dr. Sabrina Brandon Ricks, SBR Workplace Leadership Services

It is not uncommon to find personality conflicts in the workplace.  The workplace is truly a melting pot of people representing different races, ages, backgrounds, goals, ambitions, educational backgrounds, socioeconomic differences and more.  There are often times where one worker may butt heads with another worker which may be due to a decision disagreement, a misunderstanding, or a petty personal problem (PPP).

Two Types of Conflict Common to the Workplace

According to author and researcher Chuck Williams, there are two types of conflict common to the workplace:  cognitive conflict and affective conflict.  Cognitive conflict offers a need for critical thinking or to further debate a topic that can lead to a better answer or result.  It can be healthy conflict overall improving the functioning in the workplace and leading the group to better decision making or better ways to complete a task.

However, there is often affective conflict that does not improve the workplace but actually creates disruption.  For example, if there are arguments about where someone parks their car and why or not liking how someone walks and talks, these are examples of petty personal problems.  PPP can be resolved but it will require a one-on-one, mature conversation between the two individuals or even mediation if there is a chance of escalation during this discussion.

Tips for Addressing Affective Conflict

One-on-One Conversation

It is important that this conversation is not in earshot of others so that both parties can be themselves and not feel the need to put on a “show” for an audience of peers. (That is what tends to happen when addressing these issues in a group or team setting.) People are more likely to be authentic and truthful when they realize there is no one else to judge or make opinions about them.

Share Facts

It can be easy to slip into emotions and share a lot of feelings, but in situations like this it is helpful to provide facts. If you have documentation and/or recordings, it can be even more effective to support your claim.

Listen to Points of View

It can be tempting to want to dominate the conversation, interrupt, call the other person out, and more, but it is most helpful for both individuals to be heard out one at a time without interruption.  That process alone can clear up a lot of misperceptions and/or confusion.

What is Your Ask?

What are you asking of the other party?  Are you asking them to take accountability for something or to forgive you for a mistake you may have made?  Is it a situation where clarification is needed to clear up a misunderstanding and you are asking for details?  Finally, how do we move forward in a productive, professional, and mature way for the sake of the company?  It is not fair for an organization and its goals to suffer due to affective conflict amongst individuals.

Professional Life

It is important to understand that it is not a requirement to be friends with the people you work with.  However, it is required that you are professional and can present yourselves in such a way that you can work together to get the job done.  Otherwise, you create a negative environment for everyone, lower team morale, submit poor quality work, and affect the organization’s revenues and growth as a whole.

Finally, it is essential to realize that one’s professional life is just one side of the coin for people. You never know what is going on in someone’s personal life that can contribute to the less than congenial personality you may experience at work.  This is not an excuse for poor behavior but worth considering that there may be health issues, issues with children, issues with elderly parents, relationship issues, financial issues, and many other stressors that plague people’s lives and may cause them to “act out.”  Be empathetic, be supportive, and you may find situations where a coworker you butt heads with and dislike becomes one of your closest friends.  It happens!

Contact SBR Workplace Leadership Services for additional training topics related to addressing workplace conflict such as minimizing the likelihood of an active shooter incident at work, team building, management and leadership trainings, and more.  The ongoing success and health of your organization may depend on it.


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