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How to manage conflict at work

Sarah Horrocks
by Sarah Horrocks Published on 30 May 2008

Stress, misunderstanding, disagreement, different points of view, rivalry...tension in the workplace is pretty common! Before a situation gets out of control, it’s important to try and diffuse the crisis. Here's our advice.

Life isn't a box of chocolates and you certainly never know what you're going to get at the office. Tension between colleagues caused by disorganisation, unfair division of tasks, power struggles and so on and so forth can soon make for an electric atmosphere.

Different types of conflict
Finding a solution to conflict has to start with the cause; a good analysis of the situation will allow for better crisis management.
- Generation conflicts
These are increasingly common. Rash, inexperienced junior employees clash with stalwart senior employees who won't change their working methods of years. These conflicts are certainly among the easiest to solve if everyone is willing to re-establish dialogue, train older employees in new technology and make their junior colleagues make the most of their older workmates' experience and advice with patience, tolerance and an open mind. You need to know how to express your needs but also recognise weaknesses.
- Personality conflicts
Obviously you can't get on with everyone in terms of your way of thinking, personality and values, and this can easily create tension. Though different points of views are normal, they shouldn't cause automatic confrontation. Adopting an avoidance strategy while staying polite can be a solution for people who don't have to work together directly. If you do, it's best to avoid discussing sensitive subjects. But when this incompatability is such that it prevents all forms of communication, other more radical solutions need to be considered (a transfer!!).
- Conflict of interests
Bonuses, payrises and promotions create power struggles within companies. However, this way of functioning is sometimes used by some companies to create emulation (ambition to equal or excel) among their employees: a climate of cleverly maintained conflict makes employees attain better results! But when this rivalry starts to affect performance, it may be necessary to redefine each employee's territory and call in Human Resources to deal with the matter.
- Underlying conficts
Within a company you can find that only one person has a problem with management or the team. This can quickly become a handicap for a team, but there are cases where it can be beneficial. Such a person may act as an indicator of a deeper crisis that no one dares to talk about. In this situation, communication will reveal whether the person in question is a part of the conflict or could be part of the solution. But it could affect the survival of the team and even the company, so it’s essential to find the source of the problem quickly and fix it.

Communication is the keystone of any company
It may seem obvious, but the best way to get out of a crisis situation is always communication and you have to be able to talk to your workmates.
- Managing emotions
Human nature is such that when an individual feels threatened their first reaction is to defend themselves. In the face of provocation, insults, verbal or physical abuse, the temptation is to respond in the same way. But resorting to this will only inflame an already fuelled situation. To get out of a dead end you need to stick to the facts without entering into emotional territory. Emotional escalation leads to nothing, so it’s important to control your emotions.
- Assert yourself with tact
Find neutral ground that satisfies both parties. Don't give up your opinions, but accept that others can have a different point of view. Adopting a constructive attitude with the person you're faced with will help both of you clearly express yourselves, with respect for each other.

Mediation: the last resort
When you've tried everything or the conflict has got so out of hand that communication and negotiation are impossible, resorting to third person mediation can unblock the situation. As a neutral and impartial person, a neutral mediator will be able to give a fresh and objective perspective on the crisis. This third person can be chosen in the company (a union representative for example), but more and more companies now call in companies who specialise in managing conflicts between co-workers.
This solution has the advantage of allowing the parties involved to face the situation with an independent person, which will make each person ask themself the right questions, develop their sense of responsibilty and finally find a solution to the problem.

by Sarah Horrocks

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