The way that you handle conflict is one of the dimensions that will most impact your effectiveness in the workplace. In reflecting on my own conflict style I realized how much it had changed over the years. As a young woman, I was often reluctant to express myself, particularly if I disagreed with someone who was more senior. Now, as a seasoned (a nice way of saying “old”) professional I have to guard against being too blunt and too bold. Is the difference a result of my age? Experience? Position?

Arm wrestling

CC by flickr user nick@

Conflict in the workplace covers a lot of territory. Creative differences, personality conflicts, misunderstandings, competition, resentment, and even toxic relationships are all found in a workplace environment. Some of these “conflicts” are good for business. Creativity and innovation depend upon having a variety of perspectives and approaches to problem-solving. But other forms of conflict can fester over time and damage workplace relationships.

When it comes to conflict, we usually have a “style” that typifies us depending upon whether we give more attention to the relationship or the task at hand. We can think of these as three “types”:  challenger, harmonizer, or negotiator. Which are you?

In your face

CC by flickr user Tom Hilton

Challengers enjoy engagement and the exchange of diverse points of view. They are quick to express their opinions and comfortable advocating for their position. Harmonizers are sensitive to relationship issues. Disagreements make them uncomfortable. They are often reticent to express their own viewpoints, especially if they are not compatible with those of others. Negotiators look for the win/win solution. They want all the points of view on the table and hope that a solution can be found that will satisfy the needs all around, including their own.

There are strengths and weaknesses in each of these styles. Various situations call for each approach. At the beginning of a relationship (even a business relationship) it is important to build rapport. Harmonizing is good way to get started. In situations where deeply held principles are at stake, challenging a point of view that violates those and sticking to your position is vital. Trying to solve a complex problem with many stakeholders requires a win-win approach if the solution is going to have sustainability. So even if we are most comfortable with one style, flexibility will increase our effectiveness.

The way that we handle conflict is strongly influenced by our culture. Age, status, education, sex, and social class are dimensions


CC by flickr user buddawiggi

within culture that impact the rules and values around conflict. How would you describe the preferred conflict style in your workplace culture? Is it comfortable for you? Is it healthy for the organization?

Becoming competent at handing conflict is essential for anyone who aspires to be an effective leader. According to research reported in Harvard Business Review, CEOs say the area in which they most want to develop is conflict resolution:

“Conflict management is critical in the CEO role — just about anything that gets to the CEO’s desk has an element of pleasing someone and making someone else unhappy. When the CEO avoids conflict, it can shut down the whole organization: decisions are not made and problems fester, creating a domino effect of unproductive behaviors down the ladder. A CEO who can manage and channel conflict in a constructive way can get to the root of issues, apply rigor to the team’s thinking, and, ultimately drive the best outcomes. So cultivating this skill can be a powerful tool to help the entire organization.”

Like any new behavior, it takes practice to get comfortable with conflict skills. Talking openly about conflict styles with your work team can be a first step in increasing your competency. Coaching can help those who are either too dominant or too submissive find more balance.

While it might take some effort and attention, the rewards of being competent when it comes to conflict are well worth it. Getting comfortable addressing conflict gives you tools to address those problems at work that most impact your job satisfaction and well-being.


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