Conflict at work is inevitable. How you manage it makes all the difference. Research shows that each of us spends an average of two to three hours a week involved in some conflict or the other at work and in many cases, the outcome of these skirmishes are unsatisfactory. This leads to fallouts, disharmony, and distractions from the real purposes of work.

Conflict can be defined in many ways and can be considered as an expression of hostility, negative attitude, antagonism, aggression, rivalry and misunderstanding depending on the context. However, a simple definition of conflict at the workplace is a “problem or situation seen differently by two or more people who have yet to work out their differences".

Often an uncomfortable situation can escalate into a misunderstanding, which could eventually lead to a full-blown crisis. The triggers are many: a new boss, organizational change, a bad appraisal, lack of communication, lack of accountability by an individual or team, unclear or ambiguous goals…the list is endless.

There’s no running away from conflict—it is real, it’s part and parcel of our work and personal lives. It is, however, important to understand that conflict is not always a bad thing. Ignoring it, however, always is.

When negative conflict arises, it’s important to take the steps to rectify it.

Roger Fisher and William Ury, authors of the book, Getting to Yes provide a very effective framework for successful dispute resolution for people in a conflict so that each side has a win-win solution. To start with, they suggest two things:

Separate people from the problem

In all disputes, at all levels of the society, there is an increasing tendency for people to become part of the problem. If we view the problem as that, which needs to be resolved, rather than viewing someone holding a contrary viewpoint as a person to be defeated, the odds of a successful collaboration increase.

Steven P. Cohen, a well-known negotiation skills guru, suggests a specific technique that can work when engaging in conflict resolution dialogue. Change the shape of the table, so that rather than sitting opposite your “opponents", all the parties sitting together face a flip chart or blackboard where the problem is presented. That makes it clear that all the participants are facing the problem together, instead of it being “us" against “them".

Focus on interests, not positions

We often assume that differences between two parties create the problem. Yet differences can also lead to the solution. When preparing for a conflict negotiation, or after it has begun, don’t just ask “What do they want?" It is also important to ask, “Why do they want it?" It is equally important—and often more difficult—to ask the same questions about your own views.

Negotiating during a conflict is like jiu-jitsu—allow them to be tripped up by their own forcefulness
Negotiating during a conflict is like jiu-jitsu—allow them to be tripped up by their own forcefulness (iStock)

What leaders can do

As a leadership coach, I’ve often come across people whose first reaction is to blame others when things don’t go their way. An accusatory mindset, unfortunately, only fuels our inner frustration and makes resolution even harder.

Rather than letting the anger destroy your calm, think of ways in which you could find a resolution. Here are some strategies to help you try to resolve the conflicts:

Pause and introspect: A good place to start would be to understand where the problem really lies. What triggered the conflict in the first place and your own role in the situation? What is causing you or your team such stress? Identify any external factors at play, particularly those that might have nothing to do with your counterpart or conflict. Is the conflict constructive and one that can be resolved by healthy debate or discussion, or are you convinced the other party is creating a destructive environment that is sapping the team of energy and promoting negativity in the system.

Pick your battles: Avoid conflict for the sake of conflict. Not every argument or action warrants a reaction. If the issue, circumstance, or situation is important enough, and there is enough at stake, people then do what is necessary to fix it. Reach out, make the first move and signal to the other party that you want to fix this sooner than later.

Know your conflict style: In the early 1970s, two psychologists, Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann, designed The Thomas-Kilmann model or TKI, an online self-reporting assessment that takes about 15 minutes to complete, to illustrate the options we have when handling conflict. It’s designed to measure how one deals with interpersonal conflict. The TKI model includes five different conflict-handling modes:

Competing : Power-oriented mode or “standing up for your rights", defending a position which you believe is correct, or simply trying to win.

Accommodating: Allowing the other party to satisfy their concerns while neglecting your own.

Avoiding: Not paying attention to the conflict and not taking any action to resolve it.

Compromising: Attempting to resolve the conflict by identifying a solution that is partially satisfactory to both parties but completely satisfactory to neither.

Collaborating: Co-operating with the other party to understand their concerns in an effort to find a mutually satisfying solution.

As a leader, think about encouraging your teams to be more aware of their styles, and ideally of others in the team.

Collaborate. Don’t compete: Don’t think in terms of “winning," so much as constructively resolving. The only victory when it comes to dealing with conflict at work is a mutual one, that results in de-escalation, new common ground, and resolution.

Keep your emotions under check: When you walk into a resolution meeting, leave your ego and your temper at the door. No matter how stressed or angry you are, keep a cool head and do focus on the substance of the negotiation. Yelling at each other is not negotiation; it is confrontation and that can only end badly.

Silence helps: Cohen says this is particularly useful if one party is highly opinionated or emotional. It is like jiu-jitsu; you allow them to be tripped up by their own forcefulness. Staying silent and listening to the other party as opposed to crafting a scathing response can also help you see the broader and bigger picture leading to a speedy resolution.

Finally, try to do the right thing—pursue the principle of fairness. Try to work out a solution that works for both parties not just for you or your team. People value that.

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The shapes of conflict

■ Intra-personal: within oneself

■ Inter-personal: between colleagues

■ Inter-team: between teams

■ Intra-organization: between divisions or sister companies

■ Inter-organization: between companies

■ Inter-generational: between different generations 

Ruchira Chaudhary is an independent strategy professional, an executive coach and adjunct faculty

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