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How to deal with conflict in the office

As counterproductive as it may first seem, meeting conflict in the office head on and resolving it quickly and discreetly is always better than avoiding conflict all together. When issues are masked or swept under the rug they can grow and manifest into something altogether more problematic. 

Conflict in the office is in some ways to be expected, offices are small confined spaces and when you combine proximity with a stressful workload, ambition and a diverse mix of personalities things can sometimes become a little tense. 

So many conflicts in life are caused by a lack of communication and misunderstandings. Even in today's changing world as we continue to navigate remote and hybrid working practices throughout regional and national lockdowns, workplace conflict has not dissipated through distance. Instead with changes to how we communicate and collaborate along with the inability to apply usual face to face conflict management techniques, small disagreements or perceived slights can quickly manifest into deeply rooted issues. 

5 ways conflict can manifest

Conflict in the office can manifest in five different ways:

  1. Intrapersonal - within an individual.
  2. Interpersonal - between individuals.
  3. Intragroup - within a group.
  4. Intergroup - between groups.
  5. Intraorganisational - within the organisation.

Types of workplace conflict

Conflict in the office can be caused by a multitude of factors, some of the most common conflict causing issues include:

Leadership

Everyone has a different leadership style, some people are detail and deadline focused, some are aggressive, some are loud and brash, others are laid back, caring and friendly, while some are so hand’s off you rarely see them. It is difficult to please everyone; different people respond to variations in management styles in different ways. Consistency, clear expectations and actionable feedback is the best way to reduce the necessity for leadership based conflict management on all levels.

Workstyle

Some people enjoy working in a team while some prefer to work alone. Some thrive on collaborative think tanks and others will seek out secluded focused work time. Getting the right balance is not always easy, some people will feel like they have not been consulted, others may feel their ideas have not been heard while some may become frustrated by lots of ideas and little action taking place. Strike a balance between work styles, provide ample opportunities for collaboration and protect focused lone working time.

Personality

The variety in our skills, personalities, interests and motivators are what creates a diverse thriving workforce. It is not all plain sailing though; some personalities can clash and these small skirmishes can quickly change our perceptions and tolerances. Creating a culture of diversity and celebrating the unique is a good basis upon which to avoid intergroup personality conflicts.

Values

Our cultural differences, values, beliefs and backgrounds are in many ways what makes us great at what we do. These differences can however (similarly to personality differences) draw out some quite serious interpersonal conflicts, in extreme cases leading to discrimination claims. Champion diversity, inclusion and equality across all areas of your workplace and maintain a zero-tolerance policy towards discrimination.

Interdependence

When you have tasks that are reliant on the work of other colleagues, things can become tense and frustrating if those colleagues continually let the side down. Team interdependence is a highly effective approach to productivity but if reliance is unclear and accountability is not defined as well as it could be, resentment can quickly turn into conflict. Clarity with responsibilities, accountability and expectations will help to reduce the opportunity for interdependent conflict arising. 

Why is conflict management better than conflict avoidance?

Unresolved negative feelings can drain productivity, impact individual confidence, damage group morale and cause an uncomfortable air of bad feeling for others. 

The misunderstanding or misconstruing of words or actions has the potential to create conflict at any level across the workforce. With technology-based communication being used more and more, especially while we are remote and hybrid working, the opportunity for misunderstanding is greater than ever. 

Ensuring that the lines of communication remain as open as possible through the use of regular telephone conversations and video calls instead of solely relying on email and instant messaging will help to minimise and quickly resolve these misunderstandings. 

The most effective long-term approach to conflict management is to champion a culture of collaboration and compromise, ensuring that individuals have the confidence to raise problems, openly question things that have left them feeling unsure and seek resolutions at the earliest opportunity. 

When resolved properly, conflict can lead to better ideas, better understanding, and better working relationships.

“Peace is not absence of conflict, it is the ability to handle conflict by peaceful means.”~ Ronald Reagan

5 top tips for dealing with conflict in the office

1. Be discreet

Raising the issue directly with the individual(s) in question or with your Team Leader is always better than sharing your frustrations with other team members. Resolutions come from communication and communication is an excellent soft skill to practice, especially in times of frustration. 

2. Never end the day in conflict

It is never good to leave work with a feeling of dissatisfaction, mistrust or frustration. Seek to calmly and discreetly resolve conflicts as they arise. If you are in the office, perhaps ask if you can go and have a coffee together at lunch, on a break or at the end of the day. Find somewhere quiet where you can talk privately while maintaining social distancing measures.

3. Breathe

Try not to indulge your immediate feelings and emotionally react without taking a beat to compose yourself. Disengage from the situation, take a break and a deep breath then take a look at the situation from a position of calm before responding.

4. Focus on behaviour not personality

Focusing on behaviour, actions and events is a faster route to resolution than focusing on personality traits. If your only resolution is for an individual to change who they are you are going to be disappointed in the outcome. 

5. Being right is overrated

Refusing to consider the situation from the other perspective rarely leads to a lasting resolution. Take the time to listen to the other point of view, it may be that neither of you were ‘right’. The most important factor is how you resolve and avoid conflict in future - this process starts with mutual understanding. 

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