Managing Conflict at Work Positively
‘If two people think the same thing about everything, one of them isn't necessary*.' It’s a great quote that sums up how we should value thought diversity and deal with conflict positively at work. But how well do we identify our conflict triggers and manage conflict in a positive way? If you’re like me, then you probably observe more negative ways of handling conflict than examples of when it being handled in a constructive way.
First things first. I am sure your company has a vision, mission and strategic goals to achieve. You may even have a purpose statement. And so you have your own personal vision, mission, goals and purpose too – just like your colleagues. The issue is that although the organisational vision is understood, it’s very unusual for people to share personal aspirations – and why should they? However, the fact that these personal aspirations are not shared then the opportunity for conflict exists. Overlay this with inter-departmental and team misunderstandings then you can see how conflict at work can easily happen.
Before we explore how to manage conflict positively, let’s define what we mean by conflict. Disagreement is not conflict. Disagreement is at a lower level e.g., a difference of opinion. Conflict is when things get personal – e.g., when you feel you are under attack. Just like our ancestors we are hard-wired to survive so invariably when we are under attack we react in either fight of flight mode. Our feelings flood our logical brains. Emotion takes over. Relationships are put at risk.
So when we are faced with conflict let’s look at the three phases that we go through to deal with the situation:
- Phase 1 – Focus on ourselves, the problem and other person(s).
- Phase 2 – Focus on ourselves and the problem.
- Phase 3 – Focus on ourselves.
According to the Relationship Awareness Theory**, our behaviours (which are visible to others) are driven by our motivational values (which are invisible to others – unless we decide to disclose them). Our motivational values are focused on the three areas of:
We each have blends of these three areas but have a bias towards one, two or maybe all three. It's our motivational values that drive our behaviours. If you are not aware of your motivational values then you can discover these by undertaking the Strength Deployment Inventory, known as the SDI.
When things are going well for us our behaviour is driven by our motivational values. We also learn to adapt our behaviours to cope with the variety of situations that we face. Being able to act in a way that reflects our motivational values works best for us. These are known as our strengths. Adapting our behaviour is fine but may take more energy and focus.
However, when things don’t go our way then we are driven to use a set of behaviours to resolve the conflict in a way that helps us return to our motivational system – the place we like best. Here are the three steps we can take to resolve conflict which is known as our conflict sequence:
Depending on our personalities, we will choose to deploy these conflict behaviours in a particular sequence i.e.:
- Accommodate then Assert and then Analyse, or
- Assert then Analyse and then Accommodate. or
- Analyse then Accommodate and then Assert and so on…
Here’s a practical example from a recent situation at home, using my own conflict sequence of:
- Analyse then Assert and the Accommodate
The situation: I order an appliance to be fitted in my home. The appliance is fitted and in working order. However, after the installation team had left some damage to the surrounding area was noticed.
My conflict response: After being told to telephone Customer Services I presented the supplier with photographic evidence and a statement of facts (Analyse). Once rebuffed with an offer of £20 goodwill payment I decided to challenge this (Assert). Having been repeatedly stonewalled again and again I looked at the bigger picture and gave in (Accommodate) by deciding to ask the supplier to donate the goodwill payment to a charitable cause.
Summary: My conflict sequence was clearly evident – Analyse then Assert and then Accommodate. What is also evident is my concern for the problem (the damage),the relationship (with the supplier) and then myself when the issue first arose. I then became less concerned about my relationship with the supplier by only focusing on the problem and myself. My final response was to dismiss the problem and just think about myself – I had more important things to focus on.
You may have chosen to deal with the situation in the same way which would indicate your conflict sequence is similar if not the same as mine. However, you may disagree with my approach and use your own, different conflict sequence.
So, to begin to manage conflict in a positive way at work we need to:
- Realise that we have our own personal goals, vision etc. but these may not be aligned with others’.
- Understand that people are motivated by different things and that work situations may cause us to act in a way that is outside our natural way of behaving.
- Acknowledge that there are three stages to conflict where we focus on the problem, our relationship with the other person(s) and ourselves; the problem and ourselves and finally ourselves.
- Appreciate that we have different conflict sequences and that these trigger different behaviours which will be a combination of accommodate, assert and analyse depending on our personalities.
- Recognise our own conflict triggers and, wherever we can, look to solve conflict at phase 1 to resolve the problem, maintain the relationship for the future and safeguard our own wellbeing.
Diversity at work goes way beyond the protected characteristics as prescribed by the Equality Act 2010. Diversity of thought is a key factor in team working and giving employees a voice to build employee engagement. Therefore, difference of opinion and conflict needs to be valued and handled positively. And this starts with us – recognising and dealing with our own conflict triggers and understanding and empathising with others.
If we all think the same about everything then we are not all needed.
For more information on how to learn more about your motivational values, strengths, overdone strengths and conflict sequences then visit our page on the Strength Deployment Inventory (SDI).
Director & Senior Consultant, Beyond Theory