Workplace Conflict: Fight, Flight, or Embrace?

by Karlin Sloan

Research shows that 60-80% of all workplace difficulties stem from strained relationships between employees, not from deficits in an individual employee’s skill or motivation.* And, the financial costs of interpersonal conflict in the workplace are high. Ernst & Young reports on that the cost of losing and replacing an employee may be as high as 150% of the departing employee’s annual salary, and this price includes managerial time required to train new employees.

Some people thrive on conflict, reaping energy from negative emotions and seeking out combative opportunities. Some of us avoid conflict at all costs, capping our emotions and refusing to negotiate difficult interactions with others.

Conflict between humans is a fact of life.  The breadth of it knows no boundaries—we are going to experience it both at home and in the workplace as long as we interact with other people. So, the question is: Is there a healthy way to deal with conflict?

Most likely, you know that the answer to the above question is: of course there is a positive way to deal with conflict. You may not be a master of it yourself, but you probably see room for improvement in your style of dealing with strife. You’re aware that either the over expression of anger or avoidance of conflict can cause a host of physiological and mental symptoms—gastrointestinal cramping, cardiovascular stress and disease, muscle tension, ulcers, loneliness, anxiety, depression, and sleeping disorders (just to name a few).

There’s one simple answer: Embrace the Tiger.

What does this mean? It means don’t run from the conflict or try to combat it to the death.  Wrap your arms around and face it. Commit to finding a resolution. Approach the process with empathy for yourself and the other party.

Here are some tips to help you manage conflict in a healthier way when you start to feel your blood boil:

  • Count to 10…or 100: Wait until you are calm enough to work constructively with the other person. Take the time you need to let your anger simmer down before approaching the situation. Trying to communicate when your emotions are high and your heart is pounding decreases your chances of: a) maintaining your self-respect, b) being heard by your opponent, and c) resolving the conflict.
  • Sooner Rather Than Later: You must take the time you need to calm down when a struggle arises, but you must also return to the conflict in order to resolve it. Approach it as soon as you are able to do so with a clear head and rational words. Don’t let the conflict fester.
  • Let Everyone Speak: The best way to get everything out in the open is to let everyone involved in the conflict have a chance to voice their side of the story and offer a means of resolution. Explain your perspective calmly, clearly, and concisely. Use “I” statements instead of “You” statements, which can sound accusatory.  Repeat back to others what you are hearing them say and clarify feelings. Ideally, no one leaves the meeting feeling like their perspective was ignored or demeaned.
  • Be Open to Compromise: One of the best ways to solve a conflict is by giving a little to get a little. Be willing to meet in the middle. An infamous mediator once said, “No disagreement is ever resolved unless everyone leaves the table unhappy.”  Now, we don’t necessarily agree with that statement as descriptive for all conflict, but in some circumstances, it might be true.  Put down your guns—you might have to compromise a little or a lot to make peace.
  • Find a Mediator: Speaking of mediators—if this conflict is a doozy, you might be best off bringing in an unbiased person to arbitrate a resolution. Mediators offer an objective, rational perspective and keep the conversation on track until a compromise can be reached.

Despite your best efforts, you may not be able to resolve a particular conflict.  But your best efforts to do so will strengthen your communication skills, heighten your personal resiliency in the face of conflict, and give you the sense of pride that comes from courageously approaching and behaving respectfully within an uncomfortable situation.

Fyi, tigers can’t scratch you when your arms are wrapped around them.

Karlin SloanKarlin Sloan is an author, speaker, impassioned CEO and founder of leadership development and executive coaching firm, Karlin Sloan & Company providing organization development consulting, training and executive coaching to clients in the U.S., South America and Asia. Find out more at Take your RAW-Q today.

* Daniel Dana, Managing Differences: How to Build Better Relationships at Work and Home (2005, 4th ed.); Barbara J. Kreisman, Insights into Employee Motivation, Commitment and Retention (2002).

* Photo source: PEN Center USA


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