It’s 3 a.m. Your stomach roils with unease and your mind plays an upcoming scene at work in a continuous loop with different perspectives, like a meticulous director searching for the perfect shot. The amount of times you have rolled over make you feel much like a chicken rotating on a spit.

What’s the cause of this sleepless night? Conflict. An issue arose at work and a contentious debate is inevitable.

Conflict at Work


Photo credit: a2gemma via Flickr/Creative Commons

We’ve all felt this way at some point in our careers because conflict is a natural and inevitable component of any human relationship, whether at work or at home.

At work, conflict might emerge from creative differences, stress, personality differences, emotional intensity, communication misunderstandings, or confused expectations and much more.

Despite the potential for unpleasantness in conflict, it actually serves an important purpose in helping people grow and better solve problems, not to mention forging greater creativity. Charles Nemeth notes,

“There’s this Pollyannaish notion that the most important thing to do when working together is stay positive and get along, to not hurt anyone’s feelings….Well, that’s just wrong. Maybe debate is going to be less pleasant, but it will always be more productive. True creativity requires some trade-offs.”

In fact, Nemeth’s research on the subject illustrated his point when he discovered that teams told to debate were 20% more creative than teams directed to brainstorm.

So conflict is an important part of work. But it doesn’t mean one should never be conflict averse. Taken to an extreme, a person might try and address conflict for every small annoyance she encounters during the day. It would be counter-productive to be that insistent on addressing conflict.

But in most work settings where there’s a clear crossroads between parties, it is best to have a direct conversation, almost always. So when conflict arises, embrace the dialogue and approach it with a set of tools that helps bring solution rather than a series of discussions orbiting the problem.

Conflict and Stress

And yet, the stress surrounding conflict matters. If you approach conflict while under stress, you will likely encounter increases in negativity, irritability, shallow communication, and intense emotion, while also decreasing rationality. Not a recipe for success. So the ability to handle stress before conflict is critical. What do you need to do to be at level place before conflict begins?

Conflict and Personality

Another critical aspect of conflict resolutions resides in the understanding of behavioral differences. Truthfully, much of our personality dictates how we approach conflict and how we resolve it. Without this key understanding, two parties might be attempting to move forward but unable to get on the same page. There’s also a level of danger in this misunderstanding as parties might feel abused or depressed as a result.

Generally, people fall within 5 categories — directing, cooperating, compromising, avoiding, and harmonizing. These categories address two aspects that everyone encounters during conflict:

  1. How committed are you to your own agenda? How hard do you push for the desired outcome you prefer?
  2. How committed are you to the relationship? How much attention does it deserve, especially when conflict escalates.

These categories describe two aspects of conflict resolution, one being the response you have when conflict first emerges and the second details how you respond when circumstances become tense and issues are not easy to resolve.

Interestingly, people can swing from one category to another as conflicts shift from a first response to a tense situation. As an example, someone might begin with a direct response, seeking to squash any conflict and moving straight to an answer, only to move to a more harmonizing position when the conflict becomes untenable.

How would you diagnose what style you have? Tools such as the Kraybill Conflict Style Inventory bring clarity to the discussion.

Addressing Conflict


Photo Credit: Aidan Jones via Flickr/Creative Commons

So how should you approach conflict? For starters, bring the conflict to the open; don’t let it fester. Secondly, make sure every stakeholder is involved; they all need equal opportunity to participate. Finally, keep everything solution focused; don’t search for a scapegoat. Always keep in mind what the desired outcome should be. Successful solutions should meet the interests of all involved parties, can be implemented, are specific, sustainable, create nurtured and positive relationships, and have a follow-up process.

So the next time you are aware of impending conflict and your sleepless nighttime ritual returns, remember how important conflict is to the creative process as well as to deep relationships. Know your approach to conflict so you can best tailor it to the other stakeholders. With the final outcome always top of mind, your conflicts — while not necessarily pleasant — will become all the more fruitful.

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