Professional Development: Handling Conflict in the Workplace

Story by Era Sundar, Editor in Chief

People spend lots of time preparing to get a job. They create resumes, seek out references and prepare portfolios. But how much time is spent preparing for on-the-job conflict?

Conflict is ingrained in human nature and is evident in everything from sibling rivalry to international negotiations — and it certainly exists in the workplace.

This may seem like a bleak outlook, but it’s not. It’s a matter of expecting the best, while preparing to manage the worst. Managing workplace conflict is often the difference between enjoying what

you do for a living and making a mad dash for the exit whenever quitting time rolls around.

Handling workplace conflict often requires specific procedures, but the underlying causes of the conflict are usually the same as in any other instance of interpersonal communication.

Clashes among individuals often arise when people think they have to win every argument to avoid looking weak. That’s a misconception.

According to Austin Community College professor and counselor Marky Smith, avoiding conflict is not a sign of weakness, and behavior modification, specifically the START method, is a good way to minimize strife.

S – Stop when you feel you might say or do something you’ll regret.

T – Think about what you are about to do.

A – Ask yourself if you are taking the best course of action.

R – Relax and take a deep breath.

T – Try to handle the problem in a different way.

“Taking time to think about the words that are going to come out of your mouth before actually saying them can prevent a whole lot of problems,” Smith said.

Situations can also escalate when one or both parties feel criticized.

Smith recommends using “I feel” statements and clearly communicating your thoughts. For example, instead of saying “You shouldn’t have gone over my head to the boss,” it may be less irritating to say something like “When you went to the boss before I had a chance to respond, you made me feel like my opinion didn’t matter. I need you to give me a chance to do my job.”

Nipping conflict in the bud at an early stage is certainly preferable, but “I feel” statements and other conflict avoidance measures won’t solve every problem. Sometimes shortcomings must be met head on.

The best way to point out a negative is to lead with a positive. Compliment something that was done well, then be direct and honest when pointing out areas that need improvement. It is also best to have a few suggestions on how to improve.

This approach can also be used when receiving criticism or negative feedback. For example, a response to criticism can start with “Thank you for reviewing the report, and pointing out those issues.” Then suggestions for a more positive exchange can be made such as, “In the future I’d appreciate it if you pull me aside and point out the errors before the department meeting as opposed to during the meeting.”

When mistakes are made it’s important to keep the channels of communication open while corrections are being made.

Instead of becoming defensive, it’s best to take responsibility for the blunder and offer solutions. For example, “I’m sorry, I didn’t finish the report on time, but I will work through lunch and get it to you by the end of the day.”

A brief note about apologies

Taking responsibility and apologizing tend to go hand in

hand. But apologies are not a sign of weakness and they do not mean accepting blame where none is due. Be specific about apologies. It is possible to apologize for how and when something was said without apologizing for saying it — if it was the right thing to say.

When an issue can’t be resolved

It’s always best to discuss conflicts with those directly involved. But when an issue can’t be resolved, it may be necessary to seek outside help. In an office setting that usually means going to the immediate supervisor.

If the issue is not resolved at the immediate supervisory level, it usually moves up the ladder. Once all avenues are exhausted up to the department or area vice president, then it could be time to bring in the human resources department (HR).

Erica Breedlove, manager of Employment and Outreach Services at ACC, said the best way for employees to protect themselves in a dispute is to understand the company guidelines and procedures for conflict resolution as described in the employee handbook.

“It’s always good for employees to read the written policies on complaints, grievances and the discipline process so they understand what the supervisor has to go through,” Breedlove said. “When employees know the time frame in which they should expect a response to their complaint or grievance, they will know if the process is on track or if it’s not being handled correctly.”

Knowing the process takes the guesswork out of already stressful situations and reduces frustration. Most companies post their employee handbooks online.

Sometimes, however, help can be found outside the department.

“Any party to a conflict can request a third-party, trained mediator at any time in the process to help them get to a resolution,” Breedlove said. “They can contact the human resources department to set it up.”

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