Managing conflict in the workplace

By Joseph Kanengiser, LCSW

Conflict in the workplace is unavoidable. The stress that comes from conflict reverberates, sometimes impacting the quality or our work, our fulfillment with our jobs and our personal life. Nevertheless, conflict is not necessarily always bad. In fact, sometimes it’s good! Both learning how to decipher between good and bad conflict, and developing skills to address it can have a meaningful impact on our lives.

Bad conflict is something most of us have experienced, but good conflict is not something we commonly consider, as it is natural for us to interpret most conflict as being negative. In its purest form, good conflict is an expression of disagreement between two or more parties that has the potential to lead to a positive outcome. Having a passionate argument with a coworker about how to approach a project can be very positive, but only if negative conflict is avoided or reduced. Before moving on, any kind of abuse (emotional, physical, sexual etc.) or discrimination are unconscionable. If you are experiencing any of these, please consider seeking assistance immediately.

These pitfalls correspond directly with types of negative conflict, such as:

  • Personal judgment between coworkers or with management.
  • Personal disputes/attacks.
  • Arguments about issues outside of work, such as personal relationships.
  • Dishonesty or not taking responsibility for actions.
  • Territorial or manipulative behaviors.

Good conflict often comes from a functional effort to resolve many of the above issues. If both parties enter into an agreement to explore their personal disputes without attacking, the benefits can be untold.

So how can we distinguish between good conflict and bad conflict? The best way to do so is to ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is the conflict about work quality or product delivery?
  • Is the argument related to philosophical differences in how to approach problems or management?
  • Is the conflict about how we relate to each other in the workplace, with the intention of increasing functional work relationships?

If the answer to one of the above questions is no, then we have an opportunity to attempt to affect positive change. Recognizing the root of the conflict is essential. If the root of the conflict is destructive or dysfunctional, look deeper. Can you alter the conversation so that it focuses on a more productive and fulfilling workplace?

Awareness of the following factors is often helpful:

  • Getting out of our own ego.
  • Recognizing when things are getting nasty or hostile and stopping yourself from engaging on that level.
  • Identifying when we are “feeling attacked” and becoming mindful of whether that is the intent of the opposing party.

Even people who are not managers can “change the story” and turn a negative into a positive. While managers often have more agency to control arguments (and any other issue, for that matter), all employees can utilize conflict resolution skills to create a more positive workplace. Regardless of whether we are in a natural position of power, self-awareness and self-calming skills can have a significant impact on the functionality of conflict.

For example, when work habits are involved, coworkers and managers will often either assume a judgmental position or make passive aggressive statements. We should attempt to reject these impulses. Managers are in a fantastic position to engage in a calm and productive conversation, wherein they partner with the employee to discuss the issue and find a solution. Even as peers, we can make the same alteration to our behaviors.

This is how we “change the story”. We alter our personal impulse to react in a certain way. We look primarily to find solutions through conflict and argument. We reflect on ourselves and our own work habits/quality of work (Managers, please consider this. Too often your team members feel unfairly treated in this regard, even if you are a reflective and self-aware person!).

As we have all experienced, when we become upset, our ability to think clearly and rationally during conflict is sometimes compromised. Learning advanced emotional management skills can go a long way in our ability to affect change. If you are interested in reducing negative conflict, seek out resources such as professional/executive coaching, career counseling, therapy, mediation, or conflict resolution training. Everyone can benefit from utilizing these resources, as there is always room for growth in both our professional and personal lives.