The 5 Styles of Handling Conflict in the Workplace (And Which Ones Actually Work)

You’ve probably heard that conflict is an unavoidable part of life, and it is.

People are different and want different things at different times. As such, our desires and viewpoints are guaranteed to clash with those of our fellow earthlings from time to time.

Conflict in the workplace is even more of a sure bet, perhaps because work is inherently competitive, and many of us derive a good bit of our sense of self from work.

Whatever the cause, however, consider this: According to one study, US employees spend 2.8 hours per week dealing with conflict.

That said, we don’t really need studies to tell us workplace conflict is a big deal. Anyone in the workplace already knows it is.

And unfortunately, most organizations are terrible at managing conflict. In fact, many companies are undeniably conflict avoidant.

What about you? How do you tend to manage conflict? Every personality is unique, but we’re all human and share common traits.

COMMON CONFLICT PERSONAS

What Problem? (Avoider). As mentioned earlier, one way to handle conflict is to avoid it by minimizing it or pretending it doesn’t exist. Surprisingly, this approach sometimes works, because time has a way of making some issues irrelevant.

Not surprisingly, however, avoiding conflict often doesn’t work. For every situation made irrelevant by the passing of time, there are many more that become increasingly problematic. Still, anyone determined to duck a problem can find ways to justify not taking action, even if this stance is inherently unhelpful or neglectful.

I Want to Win (Competitor). On the opposite end of the spectrum are those who take a head-on approach to conflict, with the object of “winning.” These people will look you straight in the eye and flat-out ask “What’s wrong?” And if you have a problem with them, they’ll tell you without flinching what they are and aren’t prepared to do about it—and maybe you’ll like it or maybe you won’t.

What Can I Do For You? (Accommodator). When folks with a more accommodating personality face conflict, they tend to put the needs of others ahead of their own. Accommodators are cooperative and not particularly assertive, which may keep the peace in the short term, but cause other issues in the long term.

Example: Supervisor Stan has been informed by his boss that he is not to approve any overtime because it’s not in the budget. However, Stan needs his staff to work overtime. They’re overwhelmed, and Stan has deadlines to meet.

Stan doesn’t tell his manager any of this, though. Instead, he agrees the policy makes sense, indicates he’ll abide by it, and then crosses his fingers and hopes for the best.

You Give a Little, and I’ll Give a Little (Compromiser). Unlike accommodators, compromisers are prepared to give something but only to get something. Hopefully both parties of the compromise will walk away from the conflict partially satisfied, but sometimes neither party does.

Let’s Work Together (Collaborator). Those with a collaborative style of managing conflict are always looking for the “win-win.” These individuals hope to meet the needs of all parties to the conflict without anyone’s rights or interests being trampled.

Example: Bernie in Benefits is responsible for reconciling benefit invoices; Alice in Accounting is responsible for paying the benefit invoices.

Last month, Bernie got behind and was slow forwarding the bill to Alice. Alice notices that the due date has already passed, but Bernie says the company has a grace period, and there’s no cause for concern.

But the next month when Bernie is out of the office, Alice roots around on Bernie’s desk looking for the bill, which she can’t find. When Bernie returns and learns what Alice has done, he’s not happy and tells Alice as much. He also points out that Alice didn’t exactly accomplish her goal. To ensure there’s no conflict going forward, Bernie suggests adding Alice as an administrator to the benefit database. That way, she’ll receive digital notices of the bill (and always have a current copy) and the ability to make electronic payments, a quicker option than processing and mailing paper checks.

MANAGING CONFLICT ACCORDING TO THE SITUATION

With the exception of the personality disordered (who have more fixed personalities and for whom nearly every interpersonal interaction is an opportunity to “win”), most people vary their approach to conflict according to the situation, even in the face of their natural tendencies.

For example, someone with a tendency to compete may realize the futility of that strategy when the conflict involves a boss or other superior with more power or influence, or conversely, when the other party has less power (e.g., a child) or is a loved one (e.g., a parent or spouse). 

On the other hand, someone with a tendency to accommodate or collaborate may become combative when he or she realizes the other party to the conflict intends to take unfair advantage.

FINDING YOUR CONFLICT PERSONA

A good way to get a better understanding of your conflict persona is by completing a personality assessment such as DISC.

DISC stands for:

  • Dominance (emphasis on results, bottom line, confidence)
  • Influence (emphasis on influencing or persuading others, openness, relationships)
  • Steadiness (emphasis on cooperation, sincerity, dependability)
  • Conscientiousness (emphasis on quality and accuracy, expertise, competency)

Each DISC assessment is accompanied by a report that tells you how you tend to work overall as well as with others.

If your view of yourself doesn’t match the test results, consider whether a little personal development campaign (perhaps aided by a coach, counselor, spiritual advisor, or good and wise friend) wouldn’t be an advantageous use of your time.

WHEN CONFLICT IS HURTING THE TEAM

If your team is stumbling under the weight of its conflict, take heart knowing there is a productive way to deal with it. Avoiding the problem absolutely won’t do, but depending on the nature and the genesis of the conflict, any of the other methods might. (Yes, even competing [dominance], because if you have one genuinely bad apple upsetting the cart he or she might need a firm hand more than anything else.)

Most likely, though, the best approach will involve some measure of accommodation, compromise, or collaboration, which will ensure that all voices are heard and that the best idea(s) naturally come to the forefront.

Also consider engaging with a qualified professional to facilitate team-building activities, specifically structured around styles of conflict.

Crystal Spraggins

Crystal Spraggins, SPHR is an HR professional and freelance writer with a niche in careers and the workplace.

Crystal has 17 years of experience as an HR generalist helping small- to mid-sized companies develop policies, programs, and procedures that increase profits, maximize efficiency, and enhance positive employee relations. Crystal is a frequent contributor to various workplace-related websites and maintains a personal blog, HR BlogVOCATE.

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