Wading Through the Waters of Workplace Conflict

By: Trent Hale*

One might consider calling a business or workplace an “organization” misleading. The attempt to organize any group of human beings is a messy endeavor to say the least; with human nature comes inevitable conflict. In a work environment, where the stress factors of productivity, competition, and expectations typically live, it is no wonder that conflict necessarily arises at some point as coworkers attempt to navigate different communication styles, opposing opinions, and competing wills. However, as Bruce Fortado points out in his research entitled The Metamorphosis of Workplace Conflict (2001), workplace conflict holds the opportunity to, if properly addressed, provide a team of coworkers with transformation and education on how to make the messiness of our humanity work more smoothly within our places of business. The important factor to keep in mind is that this beneficial training and transformation can only come to fruition if conflict is approached in a way that is healthy and appropriate. Here are some key points to remember when addressing workplace conflict:

  1. Address conflict when it arises. This axiom sits in the number one position for a reason. Ignoring important conflicts does not resolve the point(s) of contention; it does, however, provide more time for the issues to build and develop into more unruly disputes.
  2. Clearly identify the cause of the conflict. This tip may appear as a tall order, but before the conversation can turn towards developing solutions to the conflict, all parties involved must first wrestle with coming to know why it is that there exists a conflict in the first place.
  3. Establish a healthy mode of dialogue. Here is where the “rubber meets the road,” if you will. Once one has come to identify that a problem does indeed exist and what the reasons are for the dispute, the parties must engage in healthy dialogue to find solutions.
  • First, establish how one wants to resolve the conflict: Collaboration and compromise are the most effective ways for they involve finding middle ground. Accommodation and competition will result in ignoring the legitimate needs of at least one party involved.
  • Next, commit to an atmosphere of teamwork in which each party open mindedly listens to the other person.
  •  Use neutral language that sticks to the data (for example, rather than saying “You are always coming to work late,” one can say, “I am frustrated when I am opening the office by myself because there is more work that I have to do in a small period of time”).
  • Remember to attack with the issue or situation, not the person.
  1. Bring about closure. The last step is to bring the process to closure. Make sure that the dialogue pursued in the process gives birth to clear and measurable goals and agreements on how all parties involved are going to move forward in a better direction. Furthermore, find a way to celebrate and mark the close of the dialogue and the positive outcomes and team-building experience that has been produced in the process of healthy and mature collaboration.

Wading in the sometimes “turbulent waters” of workplace conflict can, if done improperly—by avoiding problems, engaging in competitiveness, or by not using clear and healthy communication—create a toxic and daunting challenge for the growth and stability of a an organization. If done properly however—by keeping the maxims enumerated above in mind—conflict resolution will open up a team of coworkers to new opportunities for professional and personal growth. Such honest, clear, rational, and healthy communication and negotiation will transform a potential “office crisis” into an educational and team-building experience with lasting effects.

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