1. Rank several types of response to conflict in the workplace in order of most appropriate to least.
2. Explain a collaborative approach to resolving workplace conflict.
3. ENL1813 Course Learning Requirement 2: Plan and deliver short, organized spoken messages and oral reports tailored to specific audiences and purposes. (A2, B2, H2, I2, M2, S2, T2)
iv. Use effective and engaging language and non-verbal behaviours (A2.2)
v. Use verbal and nonverbal techniques to enhance spoken messages (I2.4, M2.4, R6.2, S2.4, T2.4)
A behavioural question job applicants often hear during a job interview is how they would handle a conflict situation with a customer or co-worker. Would you know how to answer it? It’s a good question because conflict certainly happens in the workplace. The potential for conflict exists anywhere two or more motivated people interact. Most people are conflict-averse, but some have no problem aggressively defending their interests, and some even seem to seek out conflict just for the thrill of it. Even though we’re well beyond the playground politics, adults can still be bullies in the workplace. Even when two otherwise good people lose themselves in the heat of an argument, knowing how to deal with such situations is a vital workplace skill.
First, it’s worth knowing what conflict is, why it arises, and what it is not. Conflict is the physical or psychological struggle associated with the perception of opposing or incompatible goals, desires, demands, wants, or needs (McLean, 2005). Conflict is universal and typically arises with opposing interests, scarce resources, or interference, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the relationship between parties in conflict is fundamentally broken. All relationships progress through times of conflict and collaboration. How we manage these moments either reinforces or destroys the relationship. Rather than viewing conflict from an entirely negative frame of reference, we should view it as an opportunity for clarification, learning, growth, and even reinforcement of the relationship.
Conflict arises everywhere communication occurs. Effective communicators can predict, anticipate, and formulate strategies to address conflict in order to successfully resolve it. How you choose to approach conflict influences its resolution. Joseph DeVito (2003) offers us several conflict management strategies that we have adapted and expanded for our use below. Let’s examine these various responses to conflict generally from best to worst.
- 11.2.1: Using the GRIT Method
- 11.2.2: Managing Your Emotions
- 11.2.3: Empathizing
- 11.2.4: Being Supportive vs. Defensive
- 11.2.5: Face-saving vs. Face-detracting
- 11.2.6: Backpacking
- 11.2.7: Avoiding
- 11.2.8: Escalating
When conflict is serious enough that it causes a rift within the workplace culture, the kind that pollutes the work atmosphere and threatens irreparable damage, a methodical, collaborative approach conflict resolution can help lead to an amicable solution. Standard procedure in negotiations is a method called GRIT that was developed by Charles E. Osgood (1962) at the height of the Cold War. In a situation where two opposing sides are deadlocked. GRIT stands for Graduated Reciprocation in Tension-reduction, sometimes watered down into Gradual Reduction in Tension. It involves one side initiating a breakthrough in the form of a concession or compromise on one of its demands. The norm of reciprocity obligates the other side to return the favour with a concession of its own, giving up one of its demands (see how the norm of reciprocity is used as a sales technique in §188.8.131.52 above). Both sides build trust by reciprocal compromises back and forth till they reach an amicable solution. Though Osgood’s intention was to thaw Cold War relations between superpowers, GRIT has proven useful in other international peace processes (e.g., between Israel and Egypt in 1977) and even in minor workplace squabbles (Psychology, 2016).
Let’s say you find yourself getting between two conflict parties at your job; on one side is a trusted co-worker, Dave, and the other is the manager, Karin, whom you like very much. They don’t see eye-to-eye on the way a major aspect of the operation is set up, and it’s caused a rift that is starting to draw other employees in to take sides. Team Dave doesn’t miss opportunities to take pot-shots at anyone on Team Karin for being management lackies, and Team Karin has been dismissive of Team Dave’s concerns and it’s members have been threatening to get Team Dave members fired. It doesn’t look like this will end well. Your sympathies go to both sides, so you propose to mediate between them. Applying GRIT in this situation would look like the following:
- Get both sides to agree to talk formally with one another in the meeting room with the goal of resolving the conflict. Reasonable human beings will recognize that the toxic environment is hindering productivity and is bad for business. Team Dave knows that it will be a hassle having to look for and secure new jobs, and Team Karin knows it’ll likewise be a lot of work to let everyone go and re-hire half the operation, which will take time and will meanwhile slow operations down even further. No one want this despite everyone taking sides and digging into their chosen positions till now. The willingness to participate in a conflict resolution process requires that both parties show a concern for rescuing the relationship.
- After sitting down to talk to one another, actually listen to one another’s concerns. Much of conflict in the workplace happens when two sides don’t understand each other’s thinking. Sharing each other’s thoughts in a mature and controlled way will dispel some of the misunderstandings that led to the conflict. One side gets a certain amount of time to state their case uninterrupted. The other gets the same. Then they take turns responding to each other’s points.
- Establish common ground. When two sides are locked in a dispute, they usually share more in common than they realize. After discussing their differences, movement forward toward a resolution must involve establishing points of agreement. If both parties agree that the success of their operation is in their best interests, then you can start with such common goals and then work your way down to more specific points of agreement. These may begin to suggest solutions.
- Discuss innovative solutions to the conflict. With everyone in the room representing their various interests within the organization and listening to one another’s concerns, truly cooperative collaboration can begin in identifying solutions to operational problems.
- Take turns exchanging concessions GRIT-style. After establishing common ground and considering pathways towards operational solutions, address the lingering differences by getting both sides to prioritize them and offer up the lowest-priority demands as a sacrifice to the deal you want them to strike. If the other side like this, the principle of reciprocity compels them to drop their lowest priority demand as well. Then both sides go back and forth like this with each condition until they reach an agreement.
The agreement reached through such a collaborative process is a productive and reconciling one. Both sides can learn from each other and develop professional from the process. Of course, if you find yourself on one side of such a conflict, you can certainly represent those interests while also playing the mediator.
If negotiations stall as both sides dig in and won’t budge on contentious demands, however, calling in a mediator to conduct the negotiations and possibly an arbitrator to decide on what’s fair for both parties is the best way forward. These may be found within an organization if it’s staffed with people properly trained to mediate or arbitrate neutrally, or perhaps outside. Whatever the case, conflict resolution starts with you, so getting practice in following this method builds excellent group problem-solving skills. It also gives you something to talk about when you get that all-too-common question during job interviews, which must be answered with specific narrative details to be authentic and believable.
Have you ever seen red, or perceived a situation through rage, anger, or frustration? Then you know that you cannot see or think clearly when you are experiencing strong emotions. There will be times in the work environment when emotions run high and you may regret the things you say in the heat of the moment—insults that will have a lasting impact because they will go into their target’s backpack. Your awareness of them can help you clear your mind and choose to wait until the moment has passed to tackle the challenge.
“Never speak or make decision in anger” is a common saying that holds true, but not all emotions involve fear, anger, or frustration. A job loss can be a sort of professional death for many, and the sense of loss can be profound. The loss of a colleague to a layoff while retaining your position can bring pain as well as relief, and a sense of survivor’s guilt. Emotions can be contagious in the workplace, and fear of the unknown can influence people to act in irrational ways. The wise workplace communicator recognizes when emotions are extreme in themselves or others, and choose to wait to communicate, problem-solve, or negotiate until after the dust has settled and the moment passed.
When you see someone offended and “feel for them,” you know how they feel because you’ve experienced something like it would be feeling the same if you were in their situation now. That’s empathy. The ability to put yourself into someone else’s shoes is essential to emotional intelligence, which is itself vital to effective communication, especially in bad news situations (see §10.1.1.5 above for more on emotional intelligence).
Using empathy in conflict situations is helpful because it may keep you from saying things that would fan the flames of conflict because you would be hurt if someone said the same to you. Beyond what you say or don’t say, empathetic listening involves listening to both the literal and implied meanings within a message. For example, a co-worker might be feeling extremely distraught but express it indirectly by saying “I would just like to focus on the positives.” Listening empathetically means detecting the emotional pain motivating the desire for more uplifting news. With that understanding, you may be wise to change your approach from one that may have first been confrontational to one that is more sympathetic and helpful.
Jack Gibb (1961) discussed defensive and supportive communication interactions as part of his analysis of conflict management. Defensive communication is characterized by control, evaluation, and judgments, while supportive communication focuses on the points and not personalities. When we feel judged or criticized, our ability to listen can be diminished, and we may only hear the negative message. By choosing to focus on the message instead of the messenger, we keep the discussion supportive and professional.
Conflict is targeted. When we say that someone is “thrown under the bus,” we use this violent image in reference to how language is weaponized to target individuals by name or role in a blame game. Such a face-detracting strategy compromises the respect, integrity, or credibility of the targeted person. On the other hand, face-saving strategies protect credibility and separate the message from messenger. For example, you might say that “sales were down this quarter,” without specifically noting who was responsible. Sales were simply down. However, if you ask, “How does the sales manager explain the decline in sales?” you have specifically connected an individual with the negative news. While we may want to specifically connect tasks and job responsibilities to individuals and departments, in terms of language each strategy has distinct results.
Face-detracting strategies often produce a defensive communication climate that inhibits listening and makes little room for collaboration. To save face, on the other hand, is to raise the issue while preserving a supportive climate, making room for constructive discussions and problem solving. By using a face-saving strategy to shift the emphasis from the individual to the issue, we avoid power struggles and petty personality politics (Donohue & Klot, 1992).
Face-saving strategies are common communicative strategies in collectivist cultures where the community’s well-being is promoted or valued above that of the individual. In Japan, for example, to confront someone directly is perceived as a supremely humiliating insult. In the United States, as well as Canada to some extent, a greater emphasis on individual performance leads to more face-detracting behaviour. If your goal is to solve a problem and preserve a working relationship, however, limit yourself to face-saving strategies in negative situations.
George Bach and Peter Wyden discuss backpacking (or gunnysacking) as the imaginary luggage in which we carry unresolved grievances and grudges over time. If your organization has gone through a merger and your business has transformed, for instance, you may have endured conflicts in the transition. Holding onto the way things used to be can be like a hefty rock in your backpack and influence how you interpret your current context.
People may be aware of similar issues but might not know your history, and cannot see your backpack or its contents. For example, you may be frustrated and stressed out by the way your new manager handles things differently from your previous manager. All your new manager sees is the tension rather than how things were in the past. Bottling up those frustrations can cause your current relationships to suffer when they bubble up or explode when triggered. By addressing, or unpacking, the stones you carry by talking about them openly and respectfully, you can better assess the current situation with the current patterns and variables. We learn from experience, but can distinguish between old wounds and current challenges. Always try to focus your energies where they will make the most positive impact.
Avoidance is a healthy or unhealthy response to conflict depending on its severity. Rising above trivial bickering is wise, whereas ignoring a serious conflict that threatens to pollute the work atmosphere and hinder productivity just contributes to the toxicity. In the latter case, you may choose to change the subject, leave the room, or not even enter the room in the first place, but the conflict will remain and resurface when you least expect it. Your reluctance to address the conflict directly is a normal response, and one that many cultures value. Direct confrontation is more common in individualistic cultures, whereas collectivist cultures tend to use more indirect strategies. Avoidance allows for more time to resolve the problem, but can also increase costs associated with problem in the first place. Your organization or business will have policies and protocols to follow regarding conflict and redress, but it is always wise to consider the position of your conversational partner or opponent and to give them, as well as yourself, time to explore alternatives (Business Communication for Success, 2015, 16.6).
Like avoiding, whether escalating conflict is an appropriate or inappropriate response depends on the importance of the issue and how what is done to escalate it. Escalating the conflict in the sense of over-reacting to a trivial issue, getting loud, using offensive language, drawing others into the fray, and even getting violent is of course the worst response to conflict. If it’s a serious issue that needs resolving, however, and you escalate it in the sense that you bring it to the attention of a supervisor or manager because it falls within their realm of responsibility, you’re doing the right thing. Whereas the latter response shows good judgment and will likely be favourably judged by management, the former response will more likely result in penalties or even termination from employment depending on the severity. Such reactions are seen by employers as a liability because they suggest an inability to manage emotions (see §11.2.2 above) and the possibility of recurring damage to the company’s reputation.
Conflict is inevitable in any workplace with human interaction, so responding to it in ways that promote professionalism requires excellent communication skills and conflict-resolution strategies.
1. Write a description of a situation you recall where you came into conflict with someone else. It may be something that happened years ago, or a current issue that just arose. Using the principles and strategies in this section, describe how the conflict was resolved, or could have been resolved.
2. Can you think of a time when a conflict led to a new opportunity, better understanding, or other positive result? If not, think of a past conflict and imagine a positive outcome. Write a two- to three-paragraph description of what happened, or what you imagine could happen.
DeVito, J. (2003). Messages: Building interpersonal skills. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
Donohue, W., & Klot, R. (1992). Managing interpersonal conflict. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Gibb, J. (1961). Defensive and supportive communication. Journal of Communication, 11, 141–148.
Osgood, C. E. (1962). An alternative to war or surrender. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. Retrieved from https://books.google.ca/books/about/An_alternative_to_war_or_surrender.html?id=gushAAAAMAAJ&redir_esc=y
Psychology. (2016, January 8). GRIT tension reduction strategy. Retrieved from https://psychology.iresearchnet.com/social-psychology/antisocial-behavior/grit-tension-reduction-strategy/