Dealing with Conflict in the Workforce

Effective teamwork is an essential in most jobs. B. Brewster Jennings summarized its importance, writing, “Man’s greatest discovery is not fire, nor the wheel, nor the combustion engine, nor atomic energy, nor anything in the material world. It is in the world of ideas. Man’s greatest discovery is teamwork by agreement.”

Even in the best of teams, however, disagreement can mar the effective functioning of co-workers. We all have expectations of ourselves and others, and how we should relate. Most of our expectations are not based on the reality of our humaness, but on wishful thinking and idealizing. Whenever there is a disagreement, it is helpful to examine expectations and ask yourself where they come from, are they based on your needs or those of the other person. Monitor discussions for frequent use of “should,” “should not,” or “ought,” which are clues to the presence of unrealistic expectations.

After you study the information here, you will be able to:

1. Identify four methods for dealing with a disagreement and build foundations for agreements which will reduce friction among co-workers.
2. Adopt attitudes in dealing with others that will convey respect and general good will.
3. Develop new listening skills using the eyes, ears, body, voice and mind.

“Man’s greatest discovery is not fire, nor the wheel, nor the combustion engine… Man’s greatest discovery is teamwork by agreement.” — B. Brewster Jennings

People use their expectations to maintain order in their lives. Unmet or violated expectations evoke stress, complaints and disagreements. Disagreements between people are an inherent and normal part of life, stemming from differences in perceptions, lifestyles, values, facts, motivations or procedures. However, disagreements may also be threatening because they arouse deep feelings of anger, jealousy, fear, grief, guilt, frustration or disappointment. Differing goals, expectations or methods can turn disagreements into conflict which, like a snowball rolling downhill, can be damaging to both parties. Conflict can be healthy and beneficial when it forces clarification of policy or procedure, but usually, conflict is a symptom of a breakdown in basic communication and teamwork.

The goal of dealing with disagreements may be met by either reconciliation of expectations or resolution of conflict. Reconciliation seeks no final solution, no perfect tranquility, no absolute harmony. It is an ongoing process which results in a fair working agreement. Reconciliation anticipates what both parties would like to get from a situation and allows them to make the necessary changes to improve the work environment or team functioning. Reconciliation brings together differing expectations and seeks alignment or agreement.

Resolution, on the other hand, focuses on acknowledgement of the concerns of each party, drawing on the positive intent of each side, bridging from the commonality of each person’s expectations, encouraging cooperation marked by mutual respect. Like reconciliation, resolution seeks to reduce friction, however, it also involves asking for change in cognitive, affective or behavioral responses to solve a problem. As with reconciliation, resolution has the ultimate goal of improving the work environment and team functioning, but seeks also to strengthen communications and build a foundation for deeper rapport and cooperative relationships.

Three common approaches to reconciliation of disagreements are frequently used:

1. Do or say nothing and ignore the situation

2. Refute, argue or preach

3. Agree with the other person.

All three methods have pros and cons. When you elect to ignore the situation, there is no reconciliation of the disagreement and no opportunity for growth of rapport between the persons. The person who says or does nothing frequently internalizes unhealthy emotions which can produce stress and its detrimental effects on health. However, this may be a valid approach when the other person is entrenched and has no desire to change or learn, or when you are vulnerable and your self esteem is already low. When the disagreement is trivial and more important issues need to be handled, ignoring the problem may be a valid approach and frequently time will cure a minor problem. Walking away from a situation may also be a valid final solution when other approaches have been tried and have failed.

The refute/argue/preach method may produce anger in the other person, damaging the relationship, rapport and jeopardizing chances for growth or change. But, this approach may be successful in a lecture situation, when you are not concerned about rapport or the relationship, or when the other person is disagreeing without having facts to support her position. It is essential that you have high self-esteem, are well-prepared and have correct facts to back up your position.

Agreeing with the other person may look like the best approach, however, it has its drawbacks as well. There continues to be no opportunity for change or growth and you may internalize negative emotions which will cause you to question your beliefs and devalue your self-respect and self-esteem. This method may be beneficial when you are dealing with an explosive situation and need to disarm the other person or defuse the emotional content of the situation. When you perceive the disagreement is based on a misunderstanding or miscommunication and suspect that your position may be faulty, agreeing conveys your respect of the other person and allows time and distance to assist in reconciliation.