For Conflict Resolution Day 2022, we’re looking at workplace tensions from a psychological perspective — and offering key steps to dealing with it.
Workplace conflict can be complicated. It is also one of the most stressful things that you can go through in your career. Not getting along with colleagues or bosses — whether due to professional disagreements or personality clashes — can make your job feel unbearable at times.
Added to this, conflict can be much more difficult to navigate in a workplace setting. Office politics, power imbalances and a fear of ‘HR getting involved’ mean that issues might get swept under the carpet and left to fester. Yet not only could this be detrimental to your career, it could also affect your mental wellbeing, causing issues like anger, anxiety or depression.
But what causes conflict at work in the first place? Let’s look at some of the core reasons why it might arise.
Between 2002 and 2009, research by psychologists Art Bell and Brett Hart identified eight key reasons for why conflict happens at work. These are:
· Conflicting needs
· Conflicting styles
· Conflicting perceptions
· Conflicting goals
· Conflicting pressures
· Conflicting roles
· Different personal values
· Unpredictable policies
So if you are dealing with disagreements at work, then it can be useful to look at which of these eight causes could be behind it, as this could point the way to resolution. For instance, are team members squabbling because they have been given different targets (conflicting goals)? Or is there an overlap of job descriptions, leaving it unclear where power and responsibility lies (conflicting roles)? Is there growing resentment between those who prefer traditional office-based work and those who are pushing for a hybrid working model (conflicting values and conflicting needs)?
Beyond these key issues, it is also worth remembering that people are so much more than their professional personas. So when conflict arises at work, past baggage might be playing a role, including issues with power, control and identity, having a wounded inner child, or dealing with mental health issues. In other words, it can be about so much more than the surface disagreement about budget allocations or project timelines.
For some of us, the workplace can bring a lot of unresolved ‘stuff’ to the surface, often related to painful family dynamics. So when a younger, fearful, wounded part of you gets activated by conflict, it can make it very difficult to negotiate issues in a healthy and mature way. Instead, you might find yourself grappling with difficult emotions like fear, shame, anger, insecurity or rejection, or unintentionally setting off those feelings in others.
Another thing to pay attention to is your workplace communication style. For instance, are you coming across as aggressive and alienating people? If you think you have room for growth in this area, then exploring psychologist Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication could be helpful. In essence, it is a tool for creating greater empathy between people and this involves letting go of agendas or the need for control. In his words, ‘To practice the process of conflict resolution, we must completely abandon the goal of getting people to do what we want.’
However, if you have a history of trauma then you could experience disagreements as deeply unsafe and triggering. This is because you might have learned at an early age that conflict is threatening, or might never have seen it resolved in a healthy way growing up. For you, any differences in opinions could activate your threat response, causing you to react in ways that aren’t helpful. This might include being confrontational, complying with things you don’t agree with or withdrawing into your shell. And these reactions might be linked to how you typically coped with household tensions as a child.
It is also worth bearing in mind the role that toxic personalities can play in the workplace. Individuals on the narcissistic or antisocial personality spectrum — who are low in empathy, take offence easily and are preoccupied with status — might create conflict as a power play or even just for conflict’s sake. This can include tactics like forming cliques, spreading rumours and targeting specific individuals for bullying.
Of course, workplace bullying is a much more serious issue than everyday professional conflicts, even if it can sometimes masquerade as them. So if you are having continuous issues with a person or group at work (to the point where you’re feeling very confused), it’s worth examining whether you’re being bullied. Our posts on 10 smart and effective ways to deal with workplace bullying and Quick Guide: How to deal with workplace bullies — the smart way might help.
Aside from more complex issues like bullying and abuse, conflict at work tends to be resolvable with the right approach. This means that you can equip and empower yourself with tools for navigating it better.
Our ‘6 Cs’ to conflict resolution are a series of steps that you can take to deal with issues at work and create better harmony. They are:
Sometimes, surface squabbling, tensions and irritations hide a deeper problem. So it’s important to start by getting to the bottom of what is actually wrong.
Ideally, the first step should be for an impartial individual to sit down privately with each person involved for an initial chat. It is important that a safe, reassuring and confidential space is created for this discussion. If people feel that the information gatherer is entering into the conversation with assumptions, prejudices or preferences, then they might not be open.
Also, bear in mind that people might come into the room angry and frustrated, ready to accuse and even saying things that they don’t mean. The key is to try to figure out what is underlying that. What vulnerable part of them might have been triggered by the conflict? In the words of Marshall Rosenberg: ‘Every criticism, judgment, diagnosis, and expression of anger is the tragic expression of an unmet need.’
Overall, the goal should be to gain clarity while making sure that the person feels fully heard and understood. Rogers and Farson’s Active Listening techniques are really useful for achieving this, plus you can explore listening skills further in 15 ways to be a better listener and connect more deeply with others and 8 key reasons why we struggle to listen.
Also, if you are looking for further tips on how to navigate these interactions then our 7 steps and strategies for handling difficult conversations at work might help. Or if you know or suspect that an individual is dealing with mental health issues or a recent upsetting event, then take a look at our guide to Supporting an employee through grief and trauma.
Depending on the situation and what is revealed, the next step is usually to gather everyone involved for a chat. Again, it’s important that in a conflict situation, conversations are properly mediated by someone fair and impartial. The goal is to create a safe, open dialogue where everyone gets an equal chance to speak and everyone’s voice is heard.
This means that boundaries and ground rules should be set at the beginning of the conversation. For instance, making it clear that interruptions, talking over each other or raising voices aren’t acceptable, alongside passive-aggressive body language like eye rolling.
The goal is to encourage everyone to focus on the issue at hand, rather than singling out individuals. Rarely in a conflict situation is any one person to blame, which means that no one should feel cornered or shamed. For this reason, people should be steered away from making personal remarks or sweeping statements about others, instead highlighting actions that are causing issues. Team members might need to be prepped on how to do this, for instance being given examples of best practice.
So instead of comments like:
‘Judy, it really annoys me that you’re careless and never check reports properly’, try to encourage more assertive and less judgmental language such as:
‘Judy, the past few reports you’ve sent to me have had errors. This adds to my workload, as I have to correct them. When this happens, I feel stressed and overwhelmed’.
In this way, the focus is on a particular action (sending reports containing errors) and its effects on the colleague, not on Judy’s qualities as a person (‘you’re careless’).
The next step is working out a resolution to the conflict. This could occur during the same meeting, or at a later date when more conversations have been had and various options reviewed. But at some point all parties should be given a chance to discuss options collaboratively, again making sure that everyone’s voice is heard.
For instance, in the example of Judy, what are the solutions? Does she need more training? More time to complete reports? Or does she need to delegate this task? What are the pros and cons of each option? How does everyone feel about it?
Next, the goal should be to come to a consensus that everyone can agree on. This involves acknowledging that compromise sometimes means that not everyone will get their perfect outcome. And in some cases, each party might need time to think and reflect before reconvening and making a final decision.
They key is that everyone should feel they have been fully listened to, understood and treated fairly. If not, then more discussions might be needed.
While it would be great if the issue disappeared after agreeing on a solution, this isn’t always the case. Conflicts can continue for a lot of reasons, from ongoing personality clashes to operational issues to problems with the overall workplace culture.
That is why it’s important to schedule a check-in at a later date, ideally via another set of private conversations. This way, you can make sure that the solution is working and everyone is happy. If not then it may be a case of beginning the conflict resolution process again, perhaps looking at alternative solutions or exploring whether deeper issues are at work.
And again, if conflict doesn’t seem to be going away then it’s crucial to be alert to bullying. For instance, do certain team members seem anxious, isolated or withdrawn?
Compassion is not a step of conflict resolution but something that should infuse every part of the process. As Rosenberg observes, ‘When we focus on clarifying what is being observed, felt, and needed rather than on diagnosing and judging, we discover the depth of our own compassion.’
Dealing with disputes at work can bring up all sorts of emotions in people and at times, can even make them seem like they are being ‘difficult’. Fear, shame, anger, defensiveness and frustration can all play their part, causing people to act out in different ways. This might include being stubborn, refusing to acknowledge the role they have played in conflict, or clamming up and being reluctant to talk. And when you bear in mind that this is a professional setting where people can fear for their job and reputation — and where power hierarchies are at work — it is understandable that conflicts might become thorny.
But by showing compassion and a commitment to understanding all sides, it becomes much easier to resolve issues and encourage everyone to come to an agreement.
Sometimes, workplace conflicts can run so deep there isn’t an immediate solution. Perhaps you have even been pushed outside of your window of tolerance and feel that you have finally reached your limit. Maybe you’re just not getting properly supported at work and don’t know where to turn.
Or maybe you feel that you somehow ‘attract’ conflict to the point that it has shown up in various jobs and roles, yet you don’t quite know why. Or perhaps you are experiencing bullying and suffering from stress or PTSD as a result.
If current workplace conflict feels like more than you can manage — or you think that there might be underlying causes that you need to explore — then therapy can help you to navigate this.
With the support of a therapist you can talk over how you are feeling about your job, work out possible causes of conflicts and equip yourself with tools for navigating them (for instance, through roleplay exercises or developing emotional regulation techniques). You can also learn how to set healthy boundaries and start making decisions about your next steps, for instance, whether you want to stay in the job.
A good therapist can also help you to explore whether workplace dynamics have tipped over into abuse. For those of us with trauma histories, sometimes it can be hard to tell the difference between our own reactive trigger points and actually being targeted. That is why talking to a compassionate, non-judgmental professional can help you to sort out what’s really happening.
If issues at work are causing you stress or anxiety, then shorter term approaches like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Mindfulness Therapy can all help you to manage this in a practical way. This could include dealing with unhelpful thought patterns about your job, such as catastrophising or black and white thinking, and learning skills for managing emotions and communicating needs.
If conflict feels like an ongoing issue in your life and you’d like to understand why, then Psychodynamic Therapy, Cognitive Analytic Therapy (CAT), and Schema Therapy can all help you to explore how the past and Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) might be shaping your adult reality. For instance, clashing with domineering colleagues who might have similar personalities to parental figures.
And if you have a history of trauma then EMDR and Body-Focused Psychotherapies can help you to revisit and release past wounds. In this way you won’t be unconsciously replaying them in the workplace, or feeling triggered and threatened by normal, everyday disagreements.
Dealing with workplace conflicts can be tough, but by applying the right strategies and exploring the role that you might be playing, you can get better at dealing with them. And while there is no such thing as a life free of disagreements, in time you can learn to navigate conflicts a whole lot better.
Dealing with issues at work? Book an in-person, video or live chat appointment with an MTA Psychologist or Psychotherapist today. Or take our right match assessment to find the best therapist for you.
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