Dealing With Conflict at Work

IEEE GOLD holds two-part webinar on conflict management

7 July 2010

Motivational speaker Wayne Dyer famously said, “Conflict cannot survive without your participation.” And conflict can arise in many places including the workplace, where it can create stress and lead projects down the wrong path.

How should you deal with conflict at work? To help answer that, IEEE Graduates of the Last Decade (GOLD) recently held a two-part webinar on conflict management.

“Conflict arises from any situation where your concerns and desires are different from another person’s,” says Alice Fuscaldo, the employee relations and training specialist for IEEE Human Resources, in Piscataway, N.J., who conducted the webinar.

To understand conflict, Fuscaldo says, you need to recognize its main sources. Sometimes a scarcity of time, money, workers, supplies, or other resources sparks the problem, or it might arise when those who want to try something new don’t understand there are a limited number of options available.

Communication problems often give rise to conflict, especially when one or more parties are not clear on what they need. And a personality issue such as ego, selfishness, or personal differences often plays a role.

But conflict isn’t always bad. It can sharpen perceptions by allowing people to see things from different viewpoints. And when a conflict is resolved, the experience can build cohesion and trust in a team, allowing its members to recognize that if they can solve one problem, they can solve others. Conflict may also alert you to issues you might not have known about, such as how a decision made by one department affects another.

But conflict obviously has a negative side. It wastes time and money, and it causes emotions to get in the way of resolving the issues at hand. And unresolved conflict creates more problems. “If conflict is not addressed, it’s only going to get worse,” Fuscaldo says. “It’s not going to go away.”

Avoidance is one of five modes for resolving conflict. It simply means stalling or ignoring an issue in the hope that it will go away. The other four modes are competing, compromising, collaborating, and accommodating.

“All these modes have their place and need to be employed,” Fuscaldo says. “Many of us find a mode that is comfortable for us, but this can cause problems because you shouldn’t rely on any one method and leave the others out.”

All five modes have their strengths and weaknesses. One of the worst avoidance tactics is to ignore your teammates’ e-mail and phone calls. But avoidance can be a good thing, especially when emotions are running high. Give people enough time to calm down so they’re ready for a discussion. Don’t push them, because that could make them want to ignore you even more. Do ask for their input, which could help you resolve the issue.

Competing means you are standing up for your rights and trying to get to the bottom of the issue. People who use the competitive mode are likely to possess several skills, including arguing and debating, asserting their opinions, and stating their position clearly. But those who use only the competitive mode can lose the ability to get feedback from others, and they reduce the opportunities for team members to learn from each other.

The compromising mode—a “Let’s make a deal” attitude—can help people find a middle ground. But too much compromising can lead to a group losing sight of long-term project goals. On the other hand, not compromising enough can lead to unnecessary confrontations and power struggles.

The collaborating mode is exemplified by the “Two heads are better than one” maxim. People using this mode are concerned about satisfying both sides of an issue. They tend to have strong listening skills and can look at data objectively, and they often get to the root of the problem by looking at all the issues involved. But overreliance on collaboration can eat up too much time on trivial matters or diffuse responsibility among too many people. Not collaborating enough, however, can hurt a team by reducing people’s feeling of empowerment or commitment.

The accommodating mode often involves satisfying the needs of another person to the detriment of your own needs. It’s a selfless mode, Fuscaldo notes, and it can often keep the peace and create goodwill, but it should be used only on low-priority issues. Being too accommodating restricts your influence and does not allow your ideas to flourish. Not being accommodating enough can hurt morale or lead people to believe you are unwilling to yield on even the most minor issue.

It isn't enough to understand your own preferred conflict modes. You also need to learn the right situations in which to use them.

For example, Fuscaldo points out that if you prefer the competing style, you should direct it toward external competitors, such as other vendors, instead of the people on your team. Also, avoid arguing over every issue. Sometimes you just need to “step back and let things go,” she says.

If you’re dealing with a person who uses a competitive style, learn to be firm. Stand up for yourself so the other person will respect you. Providing competitive people with details about the issues at hand and asking them to provide more information are also good strategies.

Resolution of a conflict with a competitive person can be difficult. Mediation might be appropriate if the situation gets too hard for you two to resolve yourselves.

The webinar presented several strategies for resolving a conflict, starting with picking the right time and place for a meeting. For example, a conference room in a different part of the building could be a suitable neutral location. But surprising people at their desk first thing in the morning can put them off guard and create unnecessary tension.

Other strategies include focusing on individual and shared needs, being open to options that might not have been originally considered, and clarifying the problem so everyone perceives it the same way, since differences in perception often create conflict in the first place.

Fuscaldo summed up her two sessions with a reminder to look at issues from all sides. “We all have our own hidden agendas,” she says. “Realize that sometimes we need to step back, look at where the other side is coming from, and understand what conflict style the other party uses.”

That, she says, can help you move forward and eliminate conflict before it gets out of hand.

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