When you’re working alongside other people, workplace conflict is inevitable.
While conflict with your coworkers — or worse, your boss — can be stressful, there are good ways to handle it that can make the working relationship stronger in the end.
So, why is it so important to resolve these conflicts? The average workplace conflict wastes eight hours of company time as employees gossip and resort to other unproductive activities, according to Joseph Grenny, cofounder of VitalSmarts. So whether you’re a leader in your organization or an ambitious employee, it’s in your best interest to resolve conflicts quickly.
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The 4 types of conflict
Before you try to resolve your conflict, it might be helpful to realize why you’re having one.
According to Amy Gallo, who wrote the Harvard Business Review Guide to Managing Conflict at Work, there are four types of work conflict: status conflict, task conflict, process conflict, and relationship conflict.
A status conflict is when you disagree about who is in charge. This can happen because it’s unclear who is actually allowed to make the call based on organizational hierarchy, or it’s more of a turf war in which one person feels they should be in charge instead of another.
When coworkers are having a task conflict, they’re disagreeing about what needs to be done, or don’t agree on the project’s goal.
A process conflict can be seen as similar to a task conflict, but process is disagreeing about how the project or task is done. In a process conflict, for example, teammates might disagree about whether a decision will be made by group consensus or a single individual. Or one team might want to play hardball with a client while another advocates for compromise.
Finally, a relationship conflict is when personal feelings get involved. This can be snapping at your colleague or raising your voice. It may also feel like you’re being disrespected.
Tips to resolve these conflicts
There are a few key steps to help you resolve conflict in your work space:
Identifying your conflict is the first step to dissecting it and resolving it. Using the four types of conflict above can help you and your teammates realize what the disagreement is about, and help create a common ground to start the resolution: you both can agree on what the problem is.
The biggest tip for resolving workplace conflict is to not avoid it. Pretending a conflict is not happening festers passive aggressiveness and puts a strain on your organization. Especially if you are a senior leader in the company, you want to address conflict quickly and fairly.
Create a space to talk out your differences. This is important whether the conflict is between two of your subordinates, you and a peer, or you and your boss. Creating an appropriate forum to discuss the conflict helps tackle the problem. You should also create some ground rules, such as respecting each other or using “I” statements, not “you” statements, to help guide the conversation. If the issue is happening amongst the entire team, be sure to dissect it as a team, and don’t single out just one person.
Agree on next steps. After the disagreeing parties meet and, hopefully, come to a resolution, it’s important to agree on next steps. Perhaps that is a weekly check-in so you stay on the same page, or it means agreeing on who will be in charge of the next project. Then, end it with a handshake.
Actually forgive your coworkers — and apologize. You need to actually say “I’m sorry” when you’ve done something wrong, and forgive your colleague to ensure a productive work environment moving forward.
What to do if you’re the boss
If you’re a leader within your organization and two of your direct reports get into a conflict, it may feel easy to “be the boss” and order them to stop fighting. But really what they need is a mediator. Your team members are more likely to own the outcome of the resolution if they’re involved in creating it, therefore preventing future conflict.
It’s your role to set a time for a conversation and set the ground rules. And if the conversation isn’t going anywhere, realize that you need to get both parties to agree to disagree and move on.
What to do if your conflict is with your manager
There’s a saying, “people leave bosses, not jobs.” If you love your job, but your boss not so much, you want to find a way to resolve your conflicts before you’re polishing up your resume.
Start by relearning and asking your boss’s expectations. Ask questions such as “how often would you like me to update you and how?” This might clear up some underlying cause of conflict between you.
Next, any time a challenge arises, be sure to go to your supervisor quickly. In the conversation, leave your emotions out of the situation, but define up front how you’d ideally like the problem fixed.
Then put any important agreements in writing. This can be done by sending a follow-up email after your meeting, recapping what was agreed upon.
Finally, know when it’s time to involve human resources. If the conflict is ongoing, ask for help from human resources to resolve it and document what’s been happening.