How to understand and manage conflict situations

Conflict in the workplace is not unhealthy, but if it isn’t dealt with at all, handled too late or if it’s tackled incorrectly, the situation can spin completely out of control. In such a case, the conflict can become so unpredictable that it could explode at any time.

Managing conflict is without a doubt one of the biggest challenges a manager faces. This is especially the case for new managers who may feel ill-equipped to deal with conflict swiftly and efficiently.

Harvard Business Review contributing editor Amy Gallo says when we find ourselves in a conflict situation, we generally do not think rationally, we do not make good choices, and we say things we later regret.

In a “whiteboard session” she sets out a few steps to consider before engaging in the conflict. 

How do we fight?

Gallo says the first step is to not focus on your own feelings but on those of your counterpart. Our instinct, however, is to think about ourselves first.

“We are all very narcissistic when we enter a conflict and that is a natural thing. You need to break out of that and think about the other person,” she says. This is not being altruistic, it is being strategic. 

It is important to identify who you are dealing with. Is it a conflict seeker or a conflict avoider? And, according to Jolene Joubert, business coach at Jolene Joubert Mediation, one should also not forget about the conflict observers. 

- Conflict avoiders: They value relationships and harmony. They will try to change the topic by directing people’s attention to another issue.

- Conflict seekers: Such people value directness and honesty. They are not afraid to say what they want and what they need. They are usually willing to advocate for others as well, but they can be impatient when it comes to conflict.

- Conflict observers: They stir up conflict in very subtle ways, but when it comes to dealing with it or attempting to resolve it, they refuse to become involved.
Annie McKee, author of How to Be Happy at Work, says a common approach to conflict at work is “outright aggression”. 

“People who habitually choose this approach are bullies. [ …] They are especially dangerous because they often have vicious followers who do their bidding.”

She says her “least favorite tactic” is passive aggressiveness. People who use this tactic seem to be supportive, logical and even helpful. Their attacks do not appear to be attacks.

“Sometimes you do not even know you have been hit until later. Fighting with people like that is like shadow boxing,” McKee adds.
What triggers conflict?

According to Gallo, the most common type of conflict revolves around tasks, and when colleagues disagree about the objective or the goal. It also relates to process conflict – work colleagues may agree on the goal, but disagree on how to achieve it. 

Status conflict is all about power – who has the power or authority to make a decision and to move things forward. Gallo says it can start when employees are assigned a task to complete, process to manage, or given a status, but the situation can then turn into a relationship conflict.

When people start feeling disrespected, the relationship is at stake.

Joubert says in conflict situations people feel angry, threatened or upset. She refers to the SCARF model of NeuroLeadership Institute co-founder David Rock.

SCARF stands for status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness. When any of these aspects are threatened or disregarded at work, it triggers primitive and often subconscious responses.

McKee also refers to those who will pretend there is no problem when there obviously is one. They will use phrases like, “You are being illogical,” or “You are too emotional”. 

“Turning the conflict around so it is about you is a tactic – a crazy-making tactic,” she explains. 

Insecurity, desire for power and control, and habitual victimhood tops McKee’s list of sources of conflict in the workplace. People who are insecure try to hide their mistakes, and even lash out unnecessarily.

Most people want to feel they have some control over their lives and actions, and the goal then becomes to position themselves above others. 

McKee says habitual victimhood has no redeeming value whatsoever. “You need to figure out how being a victim serves you [...] giving up control means that you have a ready-made excuse and cannot be held accountable.”

How to resolve conflict 

It helps to know whether you are a conflict seeker, avoider or observer. You also need to know what the other person is. 

“If you are a seeker and the other person is an avoider, you have to take note not to bully the person or to talk over him. If people start to change the topic, you have to understand that that is part of their avoider-ness and not because they are being disrespectful to you,” says Gallo.

She says one option in resolving conflict is to do absolutely nothing. It is a great option if you are concerned about the relationship, or if you are dealing with someone who tends to be unreasonable. 

Joubert says it is critical for managers to address conflict as soon as possible. “The longer it is allowed to linger, the bigger the cost and the more serious the consequences.”
Those who are directly involved in the conflict should allow themselves time before reacting. 

“Ask questions to make sure you understand the issues surrounding the conflict. Empathy is a great tool for dealing with conflict. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes,” she suggests.

Managers who successfully solve conflict are open-minded and impartial. They ask the right questions and will deal with passive aggressive behaviour by asking a question like “I notice…” or “Help me understand…” Unsuccessful managers are arrogant, and will sometimes exhibit favouritism. 

“Some managers avoid addressing conflict, hoping it will resolve itself. Conflict that is not handled goes underground and grows bigger over time,” says Joubert.

Then, it explodes when least expected.

McKee says cultivating real empathy and compassion for others is the key. Dealing with conflict starts with self-awareness and understanding why you want to avoid conflict, why you feel insecure or why power is so important to you.

This is a shortened version of an article that originally appeared in the 19 October edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here.

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