Sarah used to love her job, and the best part about it was the people. But lately, she has begun to dread going to work. An unspoken yet bitter conflict has arisen between two of her colleagues, and she feels caught in the middle. The negative environment is draining all her energy, and she worries that she ought to be doing something to improve the situation; on the other hand, she is afraid of appearing meddlesome or of losing the trust of either or both of her colleagues. Some days it seems to Sarah that the best solution is just to find a new job.
We have all experienced it. Whether you are a manager, a seasoned team member or a junior employee, you are likely carrying around some scars from workplace conflict. And you probably wonder what you might have done to mitigate or resolve it in a better way.
Positive workplace conflict
Whether a conflict at work is a positive or negative thing depends largely on the reasons for the conflict. If different people on a team have different approaches to a problem or a challenge, that conflict can be used to generate creative solutions and garner the varied talents in the team to jumpstart new approaches or to hone tried and true solutions. The key in this situation is to identify the positive source of the conflict and reframe it together as an opportunity to use all the personalities and talents on the team to figure out the best solution. The sooner this kind of reframing happens, the better, since even this positive kind of conflict can turn sour very fast, and the damage can be hard to undo later.
The hidden cause
Sometimes, conflict is the result of underlying frustrations in the team. If team members have been feeling overlooked, micromanaged, or unappreciated, they will likely come into conflict either with the manager or with colleagues, sometimes about issues that appear trivial or petty. If conflict rises consistently with the same colleague or employee, chances are that something deeper is causing it. In fact, the cause may even be something outside of the office, such as a health issue or marital conflict.
The fight for power
Power struggles are a very common cause of workplace conflict. In these cases, a battle over promotion, political clout, or professional status can fuel conflicts that do not serve the company’s mission or success. Yet this kind of conflict is often the hardest to quell, since strong passions are involved, and often the leadership is a party to the struggle and therefore not able to objectively perceive the damage being caused. This kind of conflict can also be contagious, as struggles for power and prestige often involve other team members, with pressure to take sides and rumors running wild.
If you are in a leadership position and you see this kind of conflict developing, sometimes recognizing the needs of the parties to the conflict and finding creative ways to give everyone their due will do the trick. If you are a team member, usually the best you can do in this kind of situation is to refuse to be drawn into a battle that is most likely to leave you with scars but no trophies. If you are not party to the conflict, often letting things take their course while focusing on the enjoyment you get out of doing your own work professionally can help to weather the storm that is playing out around you. However sometimes the environment becomes so toxic that the best thing you can do is look for a new position and move on.
When you are part of the conflict
If you are not an observer on the sidelines but actually in the fray, it can be hard to think about resolving the conflict wisely. However when you are a part of the conflict, ignoring it generally will not make it disappear. The best thing you can do to mitigate workplace conflict is to look it in the face, and think creatively about the wisest way to address it. If you are an employee, sometimes a meeting with your manager to discuss the issue openly can help to move things in a positive direction. Sometimes even inviting the person you are experiencing conflict with out to coffee and raising the issue can help clear the air.
Consulting with close friends and colleagues who work elsewhere can also help you gain clarity. Generally speaking, it’s usually a good idea to get some objective input and also to have a framework outside of work to express your feelings, so that you don’t blow things out of proportion or assume your interpretation of the situation is the only possible one.
Workplace conflict can create tremendous strain both personally and professionally, and it does not always lie in our hands to find a quick fix for it. A combination of patience, accessing emotional and professional support, and attempting to address the issue with the relevant parties, can all help you to weather the storm, and come out with your composure and personal integrity intact.