The good and the bad of workplace conflicts, and how to resolve themFeatured

“So we should leave by 5:00pm then”, I asked.

This was 2015, way before remote working became a thing.

I was a second-year associate at a Big 4, myself and two other associates were called into a meeting by one of the managers. We were being criticized for consistently arriving late, despite the fact that we often worked late into the night, sometimes until 9:00 pm or even 10:00 pm. I couldn't understand why our manager thought it was acceptable to arrive at 8:00 am but not to leave at 5:00 pm, which was the working hours stated in my offer letter.

My manager was surprised to be challenged, but from where I stood, I was expressing a valid concern.

Despite my position as a second-year associate, I was not willing to accept unfair treatment and wanted to have a voice. Eventually, we were able to reach a compromise, and the manager came to understand that being in a leadership position did not give him the right to disrespect others or make unreasonable demands. I also weirdly realized that some managers see management as a game of ego and began learning how to navigate such situations with emotional intelligence.

If you have been working for some time, you are likely aware that conflicts are inevitable in the workplace, especially when dealing with people who have varying opinions, mindsets, backgrounds, ways of working, and ideologies.

Throughout my own 10-year career, I have come to realize that there are numerous reasons why conflicts occur. In addition to differences in opinion or backgrounds, conflicts may also arise when individuals feel undervalued, unfulfilled, unappreciated, or taken advantage of. Whether you’re a manager or a subordinate, there’d be those days when conflicts may arise, but it doesn’t always have to be heated or end in a bad place.

Here are my best tips to deal with workplace conflicts:

Aim to understand

Communication is one of life’s essential skills, and active listening is widely regarded as the most valuable communication skill.

Yet many of us struggle with it. Research indicates that most people spend only 17% of their communication time actively listening, while the remainder is spent preparing a response or engaging in other activities.

As a first-time manager, one of the bad traits I found out about myself was that I was a poor listener. Most times, I was already planning my response and hardly took the time to actively listen. I had designed processes for a lot of business activities, and hardly left room for flexibility or for my team to carry things out in their own way. It resulted in mismatched expectations and a lot of energy trying to get the best out of my team. 8 months into my role, I ran a feedback loop and asked my team for improvement areas - you can already guess that poor communication and mistrust was the recurring theme.

From then on, I quickly learned to understand that my way was not the only/right way of doing things. Aiming to understand helped me to respect other people’s views and see the best in them. I’ve also been working on applying this to my personal life, knowing that empathy can go a long way when dealing with people.

These days, I try to find common ground as well as ask clarifying questions like “why did you decide to do x this way?”, or “what way could you have done this better”.

Address issues not people

How many times have you heard someone say: "you always send in your report late” or "you always leave the door open”? How does it make you feel?

When we communicate like this, we’re oftentimes addressing the person, not the issue.

Once, I was talking to one of my direct reports and went off! I was going on and on about how I expected them to do certain things in a certain way and how they weren’t earning my trust based on their behavior. Deep down, I realized I had an unrealistic expectation about this person’s work. I was also comparing this person with other people on the team. Finally, I had no reason to talk to this person like they were my child.

In all my rant, I had not even taken the time to address the issue, I was addressing the person, deep down because their poor work made me feel incompetent (which I hated).

I ended the call apologizing for raising my voice and made a personal resolve never to let things escalate to the point where I was transferring aggression.

Instead, I started to think of other ways I could help this person be efficient at their job and build trust with me, so they could find support. I created team bonding events, praised them for their work, and chose to see the best in them. To my surprise, their performance improved and our working relationship is so much better.

Essentially, communicate with objectivity and be mature enough to know when you’re wrong.

Choose your “fights

I’ve quickly learned that it’s not every argument or fight you need to win. Some people are great arguers and they enjoy going head on in a confrontation, even when they know they aren’t exactly right. My advice, leave that fight (to win another day hopefully).

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not asking you to not speak up when you’re being mistreated or mansplained. I hate injustice, and will gladly take a stance against it, but I also know when to flex my justice muscles and when not to.

Yeah, compromise would save you a lot of conflict.

Learning how to respond to conflict can be a real game changer in our professional lives. In fact, I dare say, our approach to managing workplace conflict can also positively impact how we handle conflict(s) in our personal lives.

What additional tips do you use to manage workplace conflicts?