Most of us dodge conflict like the plague. Unfortunately, it’s near impossible to avoid — especially in environments where different personality types, stress, and decision-making all mingle. I.e., the workplace.
While conflict might seem like the end of the world, it can actually be a good thing. Hear us out…
Think of it like this: Your back starts hurting, so you visit a doctor. They tell you it’s strained because your work chair isn’t supportive. They send you off to a physiotherapist, and you go off and buy a new chair. Things were bad, but if it weren’t for the symptom, things would quietly get worse.
Conflict is a symptom of something being wrong. If you ignore it or run away, it’s a recipe for problems. But if you acknowledge it and address it constructively, you’ll not only fix the issue, but end up with a healthier situation than you had before.
The tricky thing is working out how to address conflict productively. Most of us hate difficult conversations, even if they’re the best route to resolving an issue. In this article, we’ll guide you through the choppy waters of conflict management styles with 5 different examples. Let’s get started!
Questions to ask yourself before you begin
Conflicts don’t always need to be addressed. Here are some questions to ask yourself to help you decide.
Who is involved?
If you have an otherwise good relationship with someone, it might be tempting to shrug off the problem if you’re worried about ruining things. But chances are, things will turn sour. It’s far better to address things head-on.
On the other hand, if the conflict involves someone higher up in the workplace, it might be better to drop things (unless ignoring the conflict has serious personal or moral repercussions or could lead to a wrong and damaging decision being made).
Does it affect you?
Before you bring anything up, it’s best to take a look at the root cause first, as well as the context. If the conflict is tied to your personal values or morals, then it’s essential that you address it. But if it’s something that doesn’t have a big impact on you, it might be easier to let it slide.
Do you really need to do this?
Think about what might happen if you a) address the conflict and b) ignore it. Which is the more productive route? Stand back and weigh up the pros and cons before taking any next steps.
Can you contribute fully?
Only address a conflict if you have the time to partake fully and productively. You’ll need a firm stance and the energy to deal with tough questions and stress. Doing this can be exhausting if you’re not invested enough in the discussion.
Conflict management styles
Ready to grab the bull by the horns? Here are 5 conflict management styles to guide you.
The accommodating style means you put your needs to one side for the sake of moving past the conflict.
Pros: You move past the conflict by letting it slide. This could reflect well on you.
Cons: Putting your needs to one side could result in conflict resurfacing if things aren’t fully resolved in your mind.
When to use it: When you want to keep the peace, when you realize you’re in the wrong, when you care less about an issue, or when you have no choice.
Real-world example: You run an online business and a customer wants to return an item. They’re a day outside of your 28-day return policy. They message at you on Twitter, explaining the problem to you (and their hundreds of followers). You could turn them down and risk publicly upsetting them, or, just this once, you could put your company policy to one side and make an exception. You accommodate their needs and end up looking great on social media. Everyone wins.
Avoiding means you turn your back on the conflict entirely. Neither your needs are met, nor the needs of the other person.
Pros: The conflict doesn’t escalate, and may fizzle out.
Cons: No one’s needs are met, which could lead to escalation and/or passive-aggressive coping mechanisms.
When to use it: If the conflict is small and trivial, it may be better to just sweep it under the rug rather than make it into ‘a thing.’ It’s also a good tactic if you’re not ready to enter into the debate, you’re not sure what you think, or you’re certain addressing it will cause more problems and resentment.
Real-world example: A customer claims your app’s login isn’t working. You know it is, and suspect that the customer just isn’t doing it correctly. Rather than call them up on it and start a trivial fight, it’s probably better to just walk them through it again. They’ll likely spot their error in the process — and you get to show off your customer service skills.
The compromising style means you try and find a middle ground that leaves both parties satisfied (although the downside is, most parties will likely be left a little unsatisfied too).
Pros: Everyone wins to a certain extent, and you’re able to move past the conflict.
Cons: Everyone loses to a certain extent, which could lead to resentment.
When to use it: When it’s important to move forward quickly, you’ve reached a stalemate, or you need a temporary fix.
Real-world example: You’re presenting some creative work to a client, and they’re not entirely happy with the wording. They want to change it to one thing, but you like it as it is. As a compromise, you create a blend of the two approaches in order to move forward and get the work signed off. Everyone’s partially happy, and deadlines are met.
For this style, everyone joins together in an attempt to reach a solution that leaves all parties satisfied.
Pros: You move past the conflict and everyone is happy: it’s a win-win situation.
Cons: It takes time, effort, and creativity to navigate your way through the conflict towards an outcome that leaves everyone smiling.
When to use it: Team decision-making is never easy — and the more people there are, the harder it can be. When multiple viewpoints need to be taken into account, the relationship between the parties is important, or the final situation will be negatively affected if some parties are unhappy with the solution.
Real-world example: You’re in a team meeting, and before everyone leaves, you need to reach an outcome. You want to make sure everyone feels heard, so you work together to analyze the pros and cons of each option — so you work together to present ideas, discuss the alternatives, and weigh up the strengths of each option before narrowing down your options. Eventually, one idea emerges as the clear winner.
For this approach, you refuse to budge on your stance. You push your viewpoint and reject other options until you reach the outcome you want.
Pros: You get your way.
Cons: You may upset others or upset the status quo.
When to use it: When you have to stand up for your rights or moral beliefs, when a potentially catastrophic decision is about to be made, when you need to make a speedy decision and force others to follow, or when you need to end a long-standing conflict.
Real-world example: A customer rings up your customer services team and starts unfairly abusing a member of staff. Giving in could mean setting a bad precedent and creating a bad atmosphere where your team feels unsafe. Your best option here is to not give in to their unreasonable demands, while standing up for your customer services rep so they feel safe and supported.
Conflict management styles quiz: which one are you?
Depending on our personality type and experience, there may be styles we’re more drawn to over others. It’s good to be aware of this: not every style is appropriate for the situation, and the more you’re aware of this, the better you’ll be at stepping back and consciously choosing the right approach.
Which of the following most sounds like you?
- When there’s a conflict, I avoid it as much as possible
- I keep disagreements to myself, rather than mention them
- I’d rather keep the peace than argue
- Disagreements are stressful, so I work to minimize the chances of them happening
- I negotiate to try and find the middle ground
- During conflicts, I discuss the situation with all parties involved to try and find a solution
- Usually, I know the best route to take, and stand my ground until everyone else agrees
- I like to keep the conversation going, so that if there are any issues, they can be addressed and solved quickly
- Actually, I like disagreements because I enjoy winning the debate
- I don’t mind compromising
- Generally, I don’t mind conceding to others; it’s less stressful than arguing
- I’d rather work hard now to fix the issue and move on
- I pride myself on seeing the problem from all sides
- It’s important I meet the needs of others
Avoidant approaches: Questions 1 and 2
Accommodating approaches: Questions 3, 4, 11, and 14
Compromising approaches: Questions 5 and 10
Competing approach: Questions 7 and 9
Collaborative approaches: Questions 6, 8, 12, and 13
Avoiding conflict in the workplace is near-impossible, nor is it always the best route. Part of being a team member is learning how to master conflict management styles, or cut your losses and move on. It’s also important to know how to follow up on conflict once it’s been addressed. Organizing a post-meeting catch-up chat, sending someone a friendly email, or even starting up a light conversation on your team chat app could help keep lines of communication open and show the other party there are no hard feelings. Even a ‘thank you for having this chat with me’ can go a long way. Conflict is never easy, but the more communicative and direct you can be with your colleagues, the more productive your conversations will be.