Much has been said about structures that facilitate effective collaboration at work. 

Use cool software tools. Have a culture team. Make the workplace look colorful. 

However, there’s a dark underbelly to collaboration that no one wants to speak of in public—Conflicts.

Under that pretty makeup, neatly ironed formal clothes, happy elevator music, catchy exhortations plastered across walls, bright-colored sticky notes with the day’s tasks, concrete brutalism reeking of nonchalance, conflicts seem like the last thing you’d want to associate with effective collaboration.

Conflict with what should be done about a stale project. Conflict about who calls the shots. Conflict about how something should be executed. Conflict about the personal choices of people. These are stuff neither tools nor humans give much importance to but have a direct bearing on how we collaborate as a team.

Companies today prioritize building a happy and engaged workforce that leaders tend to become conflict-avoidant. When issues get constantly swept under the rug for far too long, employee engagement becomes at best facile.

Conventional wisdom decries disagreements as deterrents to workplace engagement and productivity. That’s an unfortunate view due to the little understanding of how to recognize and deal with conflicts at work.

A culture where conflicts are avoided shows that employees don’t find it safe to express their dissent or frustration. Or, there isn’t enough guidance on how to bring conflicting opinions to the table and work through those.

This post is mostly to help myself have better awareness the next time I face disagreements. From personal experience, when I disagree or confront someone with a hard topic or strong opinions, I’ve felt ill-equipped to handle the aftermath. I’m left stewing with disappointment that I should have handled it better. In the past, I have been quick to assume conflicts were always personal. A little digging up on the internet and relating to experiences say there’s more to where that’s coming from. I’ve begun to see how important this awareness is to improve conflict management in life and work.

When we disagree, we automatically assume it’s on a personal level.

He doesn’t respect me. She hates me now.

That’s not the case often. Broadly, there are four types of conflicts in the workplace: Relationship, Task, Process, Status.

Relationship Conflict

Let’s say a colleague is snapping at you for delaying a crucial project. She is raising her voice to make her point and doesn’t let you complete your sentence. The two of you disagree on what to do next. You try to chip in with a string of buts but then it leaves you feeling disrespected.

This is an example where most of us experience it as relationship conflict.

Most conflicts appear like relationship conflicts but they aren’t one. The example I’ve given falls under a type called task conflict. This could ultimately morph into a relationship conflict but it doesn’t start that way.

Relationship conflict happens when you have problems with someone’s identity. You may not like the way someone chews their food or the kind of clothes they wear to work or the language they speak or the political philosophy they support. These fall under the realm of relationship conflicts.

Lots of times I have thought that relationship conflict is the ugliest one because someone’s identity is under attack. There’s a good deal of self-righteousness involved when you disagree with how others choose to lead their lives. But it’s status conflict that’s the worst. We’ll get to that later.

Task Conflict

You disagree on what should be done next. Marketing may have one view on what should be done to the AdSpend. Sales may have a completely different view on the same.

Process Conflict

How should we do this?

A classic example would be Shouldn’t we all discuss this matter and come to a consensus? vs We shall go with whatever the leader says is the best.

Status Conflict

This is as primal as we get. It’s simply territorial wars. Let’s say a millennial has been promoted to a managerial position. Older folks feel otherwise about it. Someone among them thinks I’m not technically in charge of this project, but I should be the one.

Who gets to call the shots? Who is ultimately deciding about a situation? Or, who is in charge of something? In organizations that call themselves flat, there’s often a case of status conflicts where one or more people assume authority over something they have no real power.

Now that we’ve seen these four conflicts, there are four different ways to deal with those. My primary method of tackling conflicts has been to directly confront it head-on with the other party. However, I now see the merits in other ways.

METHODS TO DEAL WITH CONFLICTS

  1. Passive Aggressive:
    In some office cultures, directly confronting the conflict might not get what you expect. So instead of saying I have a problem with Roy, some will circumvent a situation and draw solutions from those. They will tell a story about a similar situation in another team and ask how that could be solved in ours. They don’t make Roy into a problem but separate the problem from the person.

    Another way is to seek advice. I’m frustrated that this isn’t moving forward. We’ve not been able to solve this. Do you have any advice on this? The question guarantees to make the person think from your perspective rather than his perspective. 

    I’m not a fan of these ideas as it involves diplomacy at the cost of honesty.
  2. Confront it directly
    While directly confronting a person, we often try to prove how the other person is so wrong or bad or flawed

    You did that, not me. You were the cause of my problems. You sent that email campaign without proper fact-checking. You promised you would do this for me. 

    Seek a better goal. Regardless of what kind of conflict you’re dealing with, the goal of the conflict is something that both the parties agree to achieve. In most scenarios in the workplace, it’s not you vs I. It’s us vs the problem.
    Establish a common goal. 

    We’ve been working quite well together in the last x years but it looks like we’re often disagreeing over y. Shall we discuss how to get over these disagreements so that we get this done on time?
  3. Take a break
    We lose our rationality when we get into a conflict. The best option is to take a break. Give me a few days to cool down and get back to you with a clear head.

    What you could do during the break: 
    Just get those intense emotions out so that you don’t bring them to the table when you sit down with your colleague or a family member. You need to expel those feelings. 

    I have always felt more impulsive than rational when I have not had an outlet to express my frustration. Find your most calm, reasonable and trustworthy colleague, and then let it all out. But you need to be extremely cautious here as it could very well backfire. You do not want this colleague to hold it as leverage against you at a later stage. Or, just bring it home if they are cool with it. Talk to your spouse about it. Talk to a friend about it. The key is to not vent it with someone who’s going to rile you up more. 
  4. Break free
    This is quite liberating and should be used as sparsely as possible. Those who burn bridges often burn a part of themselves too. By breaking free, you make yourself irrelevant to the conflict anymore. Cut the ties that cause you the conflict. That could be a change of job, change in a relationship or just about anything that you feel isn’t being resolved.

Now, all of these techniques work considering the other person is reasonable. But what if they are unreasonable? In these situations, you need outside intervention to help you break free. 

Some companies have conflict management training and awareness programs to help employees better resolve issue with their colleagues. How does it help? If you and I get into a conflict, and if we’re able to resolve it, we’re going to have a much more resilient relationship. We’re also going to feel closer, collaborate better as we went through something onerous and we’re able to amicably get on the other side of that. 

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