The Complexity of Conflict

Tips for Managing Conflict in the Workplace

By Steve & Jill Morris

Conflict is a part of life, especially in the business world where differing opinions and personalities can lead to a variety of conflicting situations. The key to developing effective conflict management skills is learning more about conflict and how it can be managed. 

Steve and Jill Morris, owners of ChoiceWorks, are experts in conflict management, and they regularly help their clients with persistent conflict situations.  

We sat down with the newest TCL faculty members for a quick interview about conflict, and they offered a few tips for helping employees resolve it.  

Why is conflict management important in the workplace?
Jill: Unresolved conflict, and people’s inability to deal with it, creates a lot of stress—both on the individual and in the environment. It not only causes delays in decision-making and wasted time on gossiping, but it ultimately impacts the bottom line. Tolerating persistent conflict situations leads people to question not only each other but also the management personnel. 

Steve: A conflict exists when one or more people perceive a difference, and in that difference they perceive the potential for loss. The key words here are “difference” and “potential for loss.”

Why is conflict so persistent?
J: If you look up the definition of conflict in the dictionary, you will see “war” or “argument.” Those are things people do when they’re having conflict. To be effective at dealing with conflict, it’s important to distinguish what conflict is, where it resides, what causes it, and then determine what to do about it.

Often people think the conflict is about the other person, but one of the things we teach our clients is that every conflict begins with you. Knowing when a conflict is interpersonal or intrapersonal is critical to determining the best way to deal with it. When it comes to conflict, the most important thing is to be in effective control of yourself—this includes perceptions, wants and behaviors. People need to determine if their perception of the situation is accurate and complete, then challenge their perceptions, and understand what is important to them about the situation.

What is the distinction between intrapersonal and interpersonal conflict?
J: Intrapersonal conflict is when I’m the one having the conflict; it’s the difference between my wants and my perception. Once I start to challenge another person about the conflict and they also have an upset, it becomes an interpersonal conflict. People are often confused about this; they think because I have a conflict with you, that means we have a conflict. But if the other person doesn’t perceive the conflict then they’re fine.

What is the different between pseudo conflict and true conflict?
J: True conflict is when two very strong yet competing desires exist, and the only way to resolve it is to give up one—or there is no one thing that can be done to resolve the conflict. For example, if someone is diagnosed with a chronic illness that cannot be cured, a true conflict exists. The conflict cannot be solved. It can only be managed. In a true conflict it’s important to measure your effectiveness by how well you are managing the conflict, not whether or not it is resolved. 

In business, there are sources of conflict that will never go away, such as conflicts between goals and competing priorities within and between departments. Companies are always trying to manage time, quality, and costs. Rarely do all these goals align.

An example of pseudo conflict is not having the boss you’re hoping for. In this case, it’s a question of how you manage yourself in that situation. You can change your perception of your boss by focusing on your boss’s strengths, partnering well where you can, and accepting differences in expectations and limitations in skills. If you do this, the conflict goes away. 

False conflicts are conflicts where there is one thing you can do to begin to close the gap within your own competing desires or with others. The conflict arises when you don’t want to do it. Generally false conflicts occur when people don’t want to take responsibility for themselves in a situation and refuse to calibrate their expectations, expand their perceptions, and adapt their behavior to make the situation better. 

This is the complexity of conflict. We must make the distinction between conflicts that can be resolved and conflicts that can’t. 

What are some ways to help employees resolve conflict?
J: When an employee with a conflict approaches a manager, the manager should lead the employee to identify what the conflict truly is. The manager can do this by asking questions to help the employee think for himself or herself, and ultimately come up with an effective way to either manage or resolve the situation. Questions you could ask are, “What would it look like to you if this were resolved to your satisfaction? What are you hoping to accomplish? What expectations do you have of this situation? What have you done so far to resolve the situation? What were the results? What else could you do?” 

S: The final question to ask is, “What will you do when you leave my office? What’s your solution, and when do you plan to do this?” Then the manager should schedule a follow up conversation with the employee to explore their progress. 

What personal attributes are needed to manage conflict?
S: Dealing with conflict takes courage. Many people don’t have the courage to expose the conflict and discuss it. Opening a discussion about a conflict situation is fraught with uncertainty: about oneself and about what others will say and do. If conflict isn’t resolved, it will fester and smolder for days, weeks or even years. It takes courage to walk into a situation that may be emotionally loaded and be prepared to deal with the emotions that show up. We can build courage by putting a plan in place and knowing what we will do if the response is X, Y, or Z.
 
J: It also takes courage to admit your part in the conflict and that you might be wrong. People can be ineffective at managing conflict when they can’t see from the other person’s perspective. Most people don’t have the skills to look beyond themselves.

S: Asking questions, listening, observing, paraphrasing, asking for clarification and managing your emotions for thoughtful responses are a few skills that are absolutely necessary. Notice, they are all about you being in effective control of yourself. Looking only on the outside to determine what you will do is like flying around the outside of a cyclone.