Certainly, the goal for most organizations in 2021 with a range of organizational psychology tools at our disposal would be to avoid conflict as much as possible. Except avoid is not the right word. Rather, through selecting the right team, practicing empathy, effective communication, and psychological safety, organizations can make good headway in mitigating conflict. They can minimize negative conflict by helping staff to address the way they react and interact while at the same time maximizing the kind of conflict that leads to better outcomes for the team and organization. In addition, making people feel safe at work goes a long way to breaking defensive and attacking patterns that are often fed by underlying insecurities.
So there’s a lot we can do to minimize conflict and make workplaces look less like kindergartens and more like highly functioning clusters of adults cooperating and collaborating effectively.
But arguably, even if organizations are doing everything right, conflict is unavoidable.
Because people will find other people hard to deal with on some days. It’s part of being human. It’s what we do about it that makes the difference.
This article will look at how conflict arises and make some practical suggestions for what you can do to diffuse it.
There are so many reasons, situations, and personalities that fuel conflict at work. In order to find a solution, we really need to unpack what is causing the conflict to find the most appropriate solution(s).
Let’s look at some of the most common causes of conflict; conflict of ideas, poor information, personality clashes, interdepartmental conflict, and misunderstandings.
One of the quickest ways drama develops is over a conflict of ideas. Alex wants to approach a problem one way and Tiffany, another way. Both think they’re right and are trying to rally supporters around the office, but nobody wants to get involved. Until someone does, and then all hell really does break loose.
Surprisingly, a conflict of ideas in any context can actually be productive depending on how a team reacts. Where there are conflicting ideas, the most productive and often innovative solution is to brainstorm solutions. Particularly if there are two warring factions, a successful solution is to open the issue up to the team to brainstorm a number of solutions. Instead of a choice between two options, brainstorm as many as you can and subject them to rigorous analysis. Compare and contrast the ideas on a number of categories and then weigh the categories. As you balance the pros and cons and various dimensions of the situation, you push the team forward together in the direction of solutions. And often, a compromise can be better than any of the original ideas. Dealing with conflict like this generates better work practices and processes for developing proposals, making thorough decisions, and working through challenges as a team, not one or two individuals.
A corollary of conflict of ideas is a lack of information. Not having the proper information about a topic can generate misguided ideas and approaches. It can also create misunderstandings and the wrong information can initiate a blame game and saving face. Not having proper information can also create distrust as to why the information is incomplete, incorrect, or hasn’t been provided for. At the very least, a lack of information creates insecurity which breeds fear, and fear fuels conflict.
Clear and accurate information provided on time is important. By establishing clear processes and expectations regarding the dissemination of information across the organization as well as clarity as to who is responsible for what bypasses a lot of problems that can fire up conflict.
There are some people who just don’t get along. They know exactly how to push each other’s buttons. These people have a lot to gain by learning from each other, especially since more often than not, the very reasons they annoy one another is they reflect each other’s weaknesses or those elements of their personality they’re in denial about. However, it’s usually pretty unlikely unless they’re getting some really good therapy, that they’ll ever learn some life lessons from each other. More often than not, they will make the lives of everyone around them hell and be highly unproductive and unhappy.
Personality clashes can be a tricky one to remedy. The problem is, the spark for conflict can often be a work issue, but it quickly gets personal, because these personalities simply can’t work together regardless of the project.
In order to determine whether staff have a work-related issue or a personality clash, team leaders can encourage staff to reflect on the following questions:
If the conflict is a personality clash, it will not dissipate until attitudes and behaviors change. Individuals need to be willing to change, work with their issues and take any relevant development and training to be able to do so.
Team leaders need to set some ground rules to discourage personality clashes. For example, team members must not gossip or complain about each other to others, and they must maintain polite, at very least neutral, manners and consideration with one another. Encourage staff to accept that people are different and consider that dislike for another staff member and creating drama around interactions with them is a waste of energy. Encourage staff to reflect on how they could direct that negative energy more productively.
If the problem is serious, such encouragement may fall on deaf ears and the only way to address it is to move one party to a different team, so the two with the personality clashes no longer have to work together. If you have a staff member that seems to have multiple personality clashes, this is a serious red flag. If the team member can’t resolve their issues with some support, it might be time for them to move on.
Often, teams can figure things out pretty well for themselves, but when it comes to interaction with other teams or across the organization, it all goes pear-shaped. Where there’s interdepartmental conflict, it’s often a leadership problem. There may be a team that’s lacking strong leadership and is holding the others back, or worse, being uncooperative or not willing to facilitate the necessary sharing and cooperation between departments.
An organization is dependent on each team doing its bit and working together and if a leader is unable or unwilling to support team cooperation, they might need further training or replacing.
So many conflicts start with simple, and not so simple misunderstandings of all varieties. The good thing about this is, if you can clear up the misunderstanding, you can clear up the conflict.
So how do you get to greater understanding and clearing up miscommunication?
Why did someone say what they did? What did you hear or what do you think you heard and what did they really mean?
If parties can be encouraged to put themselves in the other person’s position, they are more likely to be able to realize the basis of a conflict is not malicious behavior by another, but misunderstanding. The other person meant something different from what they heard or interpreted.
If they can be empathetic, they can get closer to forgiveness and moving on to solutions.
The first step to developing empathetic responses to conflict is to articulate the conflict - what has happened, what are the conflicting points of view, what are the underlying misunderstandings.
The second step is for each party to extend the other party the benefit of the doubt and maintain an open mind. Each party must empathetically strive to put themselves in the other person’s position to understand why they may have reacted as they did, hold the position that they hold, or the values, attitudes, etc.
The next step is to move towards a solution - looking beyond individual perspectives to a common solution or goal.
So while the solutions to conflict are very much related to the conflict’s origins, we can make some general observations about what works. While there needs to be psychological resilience in tackling rather than avoiding conflict, in being empathetic, and in trying to make team members feel safe, there also needs to be a structural framework in place to support positive organizational psychology.
That is, there needs to be a collaborative process for decision-making where solutions can be brainstormed and then addressed or tabled when necessary. This avoids the kind of limited decision making which comes down to a choice between two options. There are usually always more than two options.
There also needs to be an established process for how information is disseminated both within a team and across a department. Who is responsible for informing whom of what and when. There needs to be clarity about where staff can obtain information and get answers to their questions. People should understand their role and responsibilities as well as the chain of command or rather, the chain of communication.
There needs to be an established and known definition for acceptable behavior as well as the kind of values your organization wants to promote, like empathy. It should be made publicly known what will and won’t be accepted, especially when it comes to bad behaviors as we sometimes see in personality clashes.
Leaders also need to be proactive about addressing potential areas of conflict before things explode. Being a leader is not just about understanding your industry or being an expert in your field - it is about leading people, which is messy. People are messy. They have issues with other people and create conflict. If you can’t address and deescalate conflict in a calm, purposeful, positive way, then you won’t make a very good leader. Think through possible conflicts before they arise. Anticipate this in any messages you send out and how you address staff. Managing staff IS managing personalities as well as projects. If you anticipate potential sources of conflict, if any conflict flares up, you’ll be better prepared and able to put the fires out.