Managing and resolving workplace conflict is one of the major challenges facing businesses and organizations. Because of our hardwired “fight or flight” response, we often respond to conflict either with avoidance or hard line, win at any cost, tactics. The problem is neither achieves a workable resolution. The good news is that better alternatives exist.
Afterall, conflict is a normal part of life. Our ability to resolve problems effectively and manage change dramatically impacts our success and work satisfaction. A company or organization’s ability to resolve conflict productively impacts productivity, competitiveness, and its bottom line.
Five Ways of Addressing Conflict
There are five basic styles we humans use to address conflict:
Accommodation – or “killing them with kindness.” It is surrendering one’s needs and wants for the satisfaction of another. This works well in courting situations of all kinds, whether customers, potential employers, or love interests. It is the strategy of choice when the relationship is the most important element.
Avoidance – the flight part of “fight or flight.” It is the process of ignoring or postponing conflict. This can be useful as a temporary measure but it never resolves the problem. Sometimes, however, there is no way to win and it is best to just cut your losses. As the song says, “You got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em.”
Collaboration – the act of two or more people working together to achieve more than the sum of the individual parts. This is what people mean when they refer to “win/win”. However it requires trust and open communication to work. Therefore, it is time and work intensive to achieve.
Competition – the fight part of “fight or flight.” It is the process of trying to do better than others or at others’ expense. Sometimes, however, scarcity exists and survival of the fittest, strongest, etc. is the only way to go.
Compromise – a quick dispute settlement process in which two or more sides agree to accept less than they originally wanted. This is also known as “split the difference.” It is less than optimal as a resolution strategy because it requires each side to give up things that are important. It is a good backup strategy.
These styles were first identified by Thomas and Kilman in 1976.
Why People Avoid Conflict
Meaningful work conflict is essential to an organization’s health and success. Think of the “clash of ideas,” that ultimately creates a better product. The alternative is called “groupthink,” and can lead to disaster, e.g. the Challenger explosion. Yet most people avoid conflict at all costs at work. Why?
Because pushing for resolution means exercising personal courage by standing up for your ideas and beliefs and bringing important differences and perspectives forward. Many are uncomfortable because they lack conflict resolution skills and are afraid of getting hurt or losing out. Having to endure conflicts in your workplace without sufficient information, training, tools, or support, puts you in an uncomfortable position.
Yet conflict can be productive, beneficial and empowering. Relationships are often deepened when people work through their differences to a mutually satisfactory result. Disagreements often result in a more thorough study of options and better decisions and direction. Ownership in and commitment to the resolution are increased through participation and involvement