Coping with Conflict at Work

Ever felt like your boss’s expectations were unrealistic? Or your employee wasn’t doing what you asked? Didn’t like a colleague’s approach? If you’ve worked long enough, you’ve probably encountered conflicts like these on the job. Even the slightest conflicts can hurt productivity at work in ways small and large.

As the Vice President for Leadership and Innovation at the Partnership for Public Service, Tom Fox has a great deal of experience in improving workplace efficiency. Conflicts in the workplace can splinter a team and prevent work from getting done. Regardless of your position, conflicts can negatively impact you. But what can you do about them?

In a recent interview with GovLoop’s Emily Jarvis on the DorobekINSIDER program, Fox broke down the three types of conflict people encounter workplace and some strategies for dealing with them.

The Big Three

“What you find more often than not in the workplace is that people both want to be liked and like other people,” Fox said. Individuals’ desire to be liked can dissuade them from actively resolving conflicts at work. However, because the smallest problems can negatively impact productivity, people should almost always actively address conflicts to optimize their work experience. The best way for an individual to deal with a problem depends on the context of the situation. According to Fox, there are three common conflicts in government workplaces, each with distinct methods of resolution.

  1. Conflict with the Boss

“This is probably the most challenging of the conflicts,” Fox said. The power dynamic in the office can make it difficult for an individual to approach his or her boss with an issue. According to Fox, when trying to resolve this type of conflict, you should ask yourself two questions: how important is the issue and how important is the relationship? If the problem is recurring and you have to encounter this person frequently, you should broach the subject. Otherwise, it may be fine to “agree to disagree” and move on.

Once you’ve determined that it is essential to address the problem, Fox urged individuals to make sure that they are in the right frame of mind to focus on resolving the conflict instead of merely winning an argument. He suggested finding an opportunity to have a more informal conversation with your boss. Ask to grab a cup of coffee or go to lunch; moving the conversation outside of the workplace can mitigate some of the workplace dynamics that make it more intimidating to approach your boss. After you’ve found the right time and place, Fox recommended simply having a candid conversation.

According to Fox, there are four elements that individuals must outline to resolve any conflict: the situation, behavior, impact and desired results – elements he shortens to SBID. Before you meet, jot down a few notes assessing the situations you find yourself in conflict and pinpoint the specific, observable behavior that’s causing the friction. Then assess its impact on you, the team, and the goals you’re trying to achieve. Most importantly, give specifics on your desired change or outcome. Knowing these points can make conservations about conflict both easier to have and more effective.

Although it’s often daunting, a good relationship with your supervisor is essential to your team’s as well as your own success. It’s not a relationship you can avoid. Therefore, “It’s incumbent upon you to figure out how to make it work; not just your boss,” Fox said. Taking some of these steps can help individuals do just that.

  1. Conflict with Colleagues

Disagreements with colleagues can be equally difficult, simply because everyone is trying to get to the next level. Fox suggested finding “…someone who works well with that colleague and tap into his or her knowledge to figure out what it is that they do to work with that person so effectively.”

Fox stressed that you should not bring that person into the middle of the conflict, but instead try to gain some perspective about what that individual does differently and apply those tips to yourself. Examine whether there’s a personality, style or more substantive issue between the two of you. Outlining SBID here can help you recognize why you aren’t collaborating well with this colleague and address the issue.

  1. Conflict with Employees

Just as you may have had trouble with a boss at some point in your career, people who report to you may be having trouble with your leadership or management style. Fox stressed that hearing criticism and taking it into consideration is essential to resolve this type of conflict. “If you are willing to have this conversation with your boss, you need to be willing to have the conversation yourself,” he said.

As a boss, you have to listen, plain and simple. “There’s no rebuttal, there’s no retort, there’s no ifs, ands, or buts,” Fox said. Remember that it took courage for your employee to address the conflict. Take the criticism and discuss ways to improve the relationship in the future.

Conflicts in the workplace are always tricky situations; however, Fox’s strategies can make them a bit easier to tackle. Many conflicts can be resolved with clear communication with the involved parties. However, if you can’t solve it interpersonally, most organizations have professionally-trained conflict mediators. Fox urged those with substantial, unaddressed conflicts to reach out to their HR or mediation office.

Others want to be liked just as much as you do; as daunting as conflict resolution can be, everyone will reap the benefits of a happy, more productive workplace in the long run.

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Linda Sue

First thanks for this article I have taken notes and presented the four elements. I have sent emails to my manager, former manager now my manager manger and HR. I have been having this issue for years and no one cares all I hear is how great my co-worker is. Around here it’s about favoritism. This situation has beaten me down I go with the flow why I need a job. I am looking for other jobs, I will take a huge pay-cut plus I really need insurance due to health and disability. I will continue to pray. How there any articles on Favoritism in the Workplace? If so please post it.