businesswoman with displeased facial expression, while holding contract document and listening to co-worker

No matter what kind of conflict you are facing, from simple disagreements to dangerous standoffs, the ability to stay grounded is key. (fizkes/Shutterstock)

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5 effective ways to deal with conflict in the workplace

Is trouble brewing at the office? Here are some tips for defusing difficult situations.

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From simple tiffs to drawn-out disputes, we’ve all been in situations where colleagues just couldn’t see eye to eye. After all, with so many different personalities all working together, it’s only natural that storm clouds will pass by from time to time. 

To prevent those clouds from gathering into a storm front, here are a few tips. 

Keep your cool 

No matter what kind of conflict you are facing, from simple disagreements to dangerous standoffs, the ability to stay grounded is key. “It’s always best to be the calmest person in the room,” says Robert Pidgeon, a mediator and partner with ADR Education.  

Open your eyes 

Too often, says Pidgeon, managers, like all of us, take one look at a situation and think they’ve got it all figured out. “But if you do that, you won’t be good at resolving conflict,” he says. Instead, you should look for what you don’t know.  

“I like to play the maybe game,” says Pidgeon. “You try to come up with about 10 or 20 possible reasons why a person is acting in a certain way. Try not to assume it’s just because that person is ‘difficult’.” 

Choose your approach 

Pidgeon says approaches to dealing with conflict can be rights-based (e.g. you refer to the rules or company policy); power-based (you use your position to impose a solution); or you can choose to engage with the other party. All can be appropriate; but engagement is often underutilized. 

Open your ears 

If you do decide to engage, be prepared to create a space for dialogue and active listening before trying to solve the problem. “But remember that the other side(s) also have to feel it’s in their best interests to work toward a common solution,” says Pidgeon. “That becomes more difficult as the number of people grows.” 

If everyone does agree to talk it out, then someone has to design the process. For example, if a meeting is to be held, decisions need to be made about where, when and so on. 

Never forget your role as a leader 

As a manager, you need to wear multiple hats, says Pidgeon. “When analyzing a situation, you need to know whether to impose a decision or whether to take a step back and listen. Try holding a space that supports the employees working things out on their own once or twice, and you’ll see the value in helping people that way.”  

TYPES OF CONFLICTS

According to Richard Martin, a management consultant and founder of Alcera Consulting Inc. in Montreal, conflicts can be classified into four categories

The most common—and ephemeral—forms of conflict have to do with resources (the means needed to implement a selected course of action). “For example, if two people want to book the same meeting room at the same time and can’t agree on how to resolve the issue, someone is going to have to arbitrate.”

One step up are conflicts over the best course of action to achieve the objective (the ways). “If you’re running a company and two vice presidents are disagreeing on the best way forward, you will have to weigh the benefits of both approaches, then come down on one side or the other.”

Less common, but potentially more serious, are conflicts over what you are trying to achieve (the ends). “For example, say you have a VP who doesn’t agree with the company’s objectives, vision or mission. In this case, the person will either have to adhere to the common goals or find employment elsewhere.”

The worst kinds of conflicts have to do with values, says Martin. “If two people have to work together, they need to trust each other. If one person is playing behind the other person’s back, that undermines trust and common values. We could call it a personality conflict, but it’s not—it’s a conflict, full stop, and it’s a major one.”