Conflict at Work

conflict at work


At some point in our working lives, most of us will find ourselves in conflict with a work colleague or a manager. Workplace conflict can be very costly for the individuals involved, and their employer. It blocks communication, diminishes trust, and weakens relationships. Conflict is invariably driven by emotion: we argue when we feel frustrated or angry or insecure. And if it is not handled well, workplace conflict can quickly turn toxic.

In my experience, the best way to manage workplace conflict is to seize the initiative. Take your colleague to one side and ask for five minutes of his or her time. To avoid embarrassing your colleague, be discreet. And choose the right moment—if your colleague is rushing to meet a deadline, she’s unlikely to be receptive.

To make the most of this opportunity, it’s important to listen closely, communicate clearly, and manage your emotions. Communicating openly about our feelings and needs is the best way to resolve conflict. However, we may find this challenging. Perhaps we fear confrontation, or perhaps we can’t find the right words to express our feelings. Here are some tips that really help lower the emotional intensity of workplace conflicts:

  • Before approaching your colleague, breathe in and out slowly, and allow your body to relax.
  • Use open, assertive body language.
    • If you fold your arms or cover your mouth with your hands you’ll appear closed and defensive. Instead, use open gestures to demonstrate your composure and your willingness to listen.
  • Focus on the behaviour, not the individual.
    • Be specific about the problem as you see it.
    • Avoid the temptation to label or psychoanalyse your colleague’s behaviour. (“You’ve obviously got issues with women, you misogynist bully!”)
    • If you criticise your colleague, you escalate the conflict. Instead, take responsibility for your feelings by using I-statements. For example: “When you criticise me in front of my team mates, I feel hurt and angry. Because it’s not clear to me how you feel I let you down, I don’t know what you expect me to do differently.”
  • Of course, you will also need to listen to your colleague’s point of view.
    • Listen without defending yourself or justifying your behaviour.
    • Once your colleague has finished speaking, paraphrase your understanding of her comments. (“So what you’re saying is…”)
    • Keep your voice low and speak slowly. This helps you both relax.
  • If your colleague’s comments sound vague to you, ask for clarification. Ask your colleague to provide specific examples to back his claim.
  • If your colleague’s comments are correct, accept them as true. Thank your colleague for the feedback. Then explore other ways you could change your behaviour. (“Are there any other areas where I could be approaching things differently?”)
  • Ask your colleague to suggest alternative behaviours. (“What would you like to see happen?”)
  • Validate your colleague’s feelings. (“I understand that you feel upset because…) Note: you do not need to agree with your colleague to validate her feelings.
  • Offer some positive comments to your colleague as well, provided you feel comfortable doing so and the feedback is honest.

When we find ourselves in conflict at work, it’s tempting to rush this conversation, or give up too soon. However, if you can stick with it, you’ll likely be rewarded with a stronger working relationship with your colleague. If you become frustrated or anxious, take some deep breaths. If things become too heated, call time-out—but first make sure you agree to meet again to resolve the issue once you’re both feeling calmer.

Most importantly, keep yourself safe. Workplace conflict usually arises in the heat of the moment. If you feel physically threatened, withdraw from the situation. Report the incident to your manager. If you felt physically threatened by your manager, report the incident to your Workplace Safety Officer, HR Manager or union delegate.

Workplace conflict can spiral out of control if not addressed immediately. If this has already happened, your workplace should organise internal or external mediation between the parties to help resolve the issue. Mediation, if done well, improves the situation in about 70-80% of cases. If the harassment is planned, repeated and ongoing, and if there is a power imbalance between the parties involved, then it becomes workplace bullying. This is a serious matter, with legal implications for your employer.

Should you feel you are being bullied, talk with your HR Manager or Employee Assistance Provider, or visit a psychologist or counsellor who specialises in this area.

Looking for a psycholigst to deal with conflict at work? The team at North Brisbane Psychologists can help. Book an appointment today.