Resolving Workplace Conflicts
Workplace conflict wears many faces. Consider these situations:
A vendor requested to work with Chris instead of Pat. Management approved the decision, but when Pat found out he confronted Chris and accused Chris of being unethical. Pat and Chris haven’t spoken since.
- Tom and Betty had a disagreement so long ago that no one even remembers who said what or why it was said. Both employees do their jobs well, but they communicate only when necessary, and bristle when they attend the same meeting.
- Terry has a great sense of humor and a talent for turning a phrase. Sometimes, though, the humor has a biting edge that hurts people’s feelings.
Pat’s conflict with Chris was explosive and direct, while Tom’s and Betty’s simmers constantly in the background. Terry’s stinging comments may not even be detected as a source of conflict. But conflicts like these have a way of permeating the workplace, affecting far more than those involved in the initial dispute. For example, you can be sure everyone knows you should never invite both Tom and Betty to the same lunch. And people who are hurt or made uneasy by Terry’s jokes simply learn to avoid him. In Chris and Pat’s office, co-workers who are pressured to “choose sides” will soon divide into uncooperative factions.
Unrecognized or unresolved, conflict in the workplace causes stress, alienation, and a lack of cooperation. The resulting negative atmosphere impacts productivity and morale, contributes to illness and absenteeism, and in the long run can affect employee turnover and UCF’s reputation. If conflict is allowed to escalate, it can result in costly and time-consuming legal battles, and even violent outbursts.
Conflict is bound to occur in every workplace. Learning and applying some conflict resolution communication strategies can help you to resolve it before it becomes too big to handle.
How Do You Handle Conflict?
Think about how you feel when people disagree in your presence, or when you are confronted. Do you withdraw from conflict? Do you deny the issue, or try to rationalize away the feelings with facts? Perhaps you’re someone who always gives in just to end the argument, or you feel the need to force your opinion on others. Whatever your attitude, you need to understand it before you can be effective in dealing with conflict. If you take an honest look and don’t like what you see, you can alter the outcome of the conflict as long as you are willing to change your behavior.
Whether you know it or not, your workplace has its own conflict personality. Some office cultures just smile and pretend conflict doesn’t exist. Others may allow the “bullies” to take control while leaving others to quietly stew, or plot revenge. Still others resolve disputes by pulling rank or “going by the book,” ignoring the personalities and realities of the situation. Too few workplaces realize that conflict is inevitable but if it is dealt with directly and honestly, people can usually reach an equitable agreement that prevents escalation.
Most people involved in conflict want to solve the problem, they just don’t have the skills to do it. Here are some strategies to keep in mind when dealing with conflict.
- Address issues as soon as possible when they arise. The longer a conflict remains unresolved, the more likely it is to explode. It’s much harder to discuss old business than to focus on immediate and specific issues.
- Commit to solving the problem. A commitment means you are ready to own your part of the conflict and take steps to resolve it. Be ready to change your behavior if need be.
- Understand your own feelings, thoughts, and perceptions around the issue so that you can communicate your position clearly. Blame, name-calling, or put-downs do not help resolve conflicts.
- Discuss the issue in the right setting. For example, wait until tempers are cool, then meet in “neutral territory.”
- Focus on the issue, not on the other person. The more specific you are about the issue to be addressed, the more likely it is to be resolved.
- Listen to and respect the other person’s position even if you do not agree with it. Make sure you are really hearing them and not just listening for what you expect to hear. What is their goal or interest in resolving the issue? What do they really want?
- Explore and create options for solving the problem that are mutually agreeable to all parties. When people really hear and understand both sides of an issue, a win-win solution is often possible.
- If you have a conflict with a specific person, talk to that person about it, not to others in the office. If co-workers come to you with problems about others, give them the same advice! Gossip fuels conflict. It does nothing to resolve it.
How do these guidelines apply to the people in our opening examples?
- Pat could evaluate his feelings about not being chosen to work directly with the vendor. Instead of confronting Chris with accusations, it would be appropriate for Pat to meet with Chris, and perhaps their supervisor, to explain why he was so angry and what he hoped would happen in the future.
- It’s unlikely that Tom and Betty can ever discuss what happened so long ago. But they can commit to improving their working relationship by honestly and openly discussing any recent behavior that has fueled the grudge.
- Terry doesn’t realize his “jokes” sting because no one has ever told him. A simple statement such as “Terry, when you make remarks about my filing system, it really hurts my feelings” is a good start toward helping him to understand the impact of his remarks.
The more you practice constructive, respectful engagement the easier it will be to come up with creative solutions. The good news is that every positive interaction builds better relationships in the workplace. In time, your workplace will experience the effects of direct, positive communication instead of the negative effects of unresolved conflict.
There are many good reasons why UCF is committed to reducing conflict in the workplace. Reducing conflicts in the workplace promotes a positive atmosphere. Studies show that more than one-third of a supervisor’s time is spent dealing with and resolving workplace conflict. When conflict is reduced this time can be spent on more positive activities. Reducing conflict also reduces the chances of conflict erupting into violence.
If you or someone you know is experiencing workplace conflict, the Ombuds Office is available to assist in a confidential, impartial and informal manner. They can listen to your concern, provide guidance regarding next steps, discuss strategies to open up avenues of communication, assist with identifying options and much more. To learn more about the Ombuds Office, please visit www.ombuds.ucf.edu
Training Offered by UCF Human Resources
The Human Resources Learning & Organizational Effectiveness team offers the following free workshops on effective communication and dealing with difficult situations through:
- Civility at Work – PER230 (for non-supervisory employees)
- Fostering a Civil Workplace – LDR012 (for supervisors)
- Constructive Conversations – PER233 (for non-supervisory employees)
- Giving & Receiving Feedback – PER201
- Performance Management 1.0 – LDR004 (for supervisors)
The following workshops are fee-based and provided to groups by request:
- Conflict Resolution with the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI)
- Everything DiSC® Productive Conflict