What are conflicts like at your workplace? Do people battle it out until there’s a winner? Are conflicts buried under the rug until someone quits? Or, does everyone involved engage in fact-finding and perspective-sharing while working toward mutual understanding and a win-win outcome? I’m willing to bet it’s not that last one and here’s why: it doesn’t come naturally, and most people haven’t learned how to do it.
People tend to have a conflict style that has developed over their lifetime based on a blend of personal characteristics, life experiences and family background, according to William Wilmot and Joyce Hocker, authors of the textbook "Interpersonal Conflict." They say that by the time we’re adults, our basic orientation to conflicts has developed and remains fairly consistent. Our conflict style can serve us well, but it can also work against us. Here’s how:
Avoiding. People with this style tend to avoid conflict as much as possible. This is a good strategy when you don’t value your relationship with the other person, don’t care about the issue, or want to stay out of trouble. For example, let’s say that you just got into an argument with a co-worker and tomorrow is the company picnic. Avoiding your co-worker at the company picnic could prevent you from fighting and getting yourself into trouble. However, always avoiding conflicts might mean that you never get what you want.
Accommodating. People with this style tend to give in when conflicts arise. This is a good strategy when you really value the relationship and you don’t value the issue. For example, let’s say your manager came to work upset and yelled at you to turn your radio down. You value your relationship with the company (meaning you want to remain employed), so you just give in and do what you’re told. Accommodating your supervisor could prevent you from getting fired; however, it’s not in your best interest to give in all the time.
Competing. People with this style automatically go into an “I’m going to win and you’re going to lose” mode. This is a good strategy when you value the issue more than the relationship. For example, let’s say you caught a co-worker embezzling. You might value the co-worker; however, you value honesty more, so you tell your supervisor about your co-worker’s actions. Competing in this instance is good because you help the company and maintain your principles. However, always competing means always putting others in a losing position, which could damage your relationships and result in you losing something you value.
Compromising. People with this style are quick to look at what they can give up so they can get something they want. This is a good strategy when you value the relationship and the issue equally. For example, your office mate, who you think is overzealous about keeping things clean, repeatedly asks you to clean up your workspace. Even though empty coffee cups and your used tissue on your desk don’t bother you, you do a better job of cleaning up to keep the peace. Even though you might have learned that compromising is always the answer to resolving conflicts, that’s not true. For example, compromising your principles is never a good thing to do.
Collaborating. People with this style want to work so all involved can win. Unfortunately, America’s culture — with its emphasis on rugged individualism — doesn’t inspire us to collaborate. Thus, this style doesn’t come naturally to most people, and most people haven’t learned how to do it.
Collaboration is a good strategy when you really value the issue and really value the relationship. For example, let’s say your quarterly bonus is not nearly as much as you thought it would be. You really value getting what you think you’re owed, and you really value staying employed.
How you approach the situation is critical to getting both. Here’s how you do it:
• Establish mutual goals. Wilmot and Hocker said conflicts usually exist because of the perception of incompatible goals, scarce resources, and interference from others. However, our perception is just that — it’s what we think is going on, not necessarily what is really going on. The first step in collaboration is to determine whether both parties are really at odds or if they actually have a mutual goal.
Here’s what that would sound like: “Boss, I’d like to talk to you about my quarterly bonus. It wasn’t as much as I thought it would be, so I want to ensure we’re on the same page about how the bonus is calculated.”
• Separate the people from the problems. One reason people don’t like conflict is because it often gets very ugly. If you start saying things like “you always get your way, you’re so selfish, you’re such a baby” then that reduces your chances of resolution. So, stay focused on the issue.
• Focus on interests, not positions (positions are demands, interests are the reasons behind the demands). In our bonus scenario, demanding that you receive what you think you’re owed will probably not get you the result you want. Saying something like: “I’m frustrated because I thought I did what I needed to do to receive (insert dollar amount here)” will probably get a better response.
• Generate alternatives for mutual gain. If there was a valid misunderstanding about how the bonus was calculated, talk about some things that could be put into place to resolve the immediate issue (such as more money, paid time off, or some other kind of perk) and prevent a similar disagreement in the future (such as a more specific bonus plan).
• Use objective criteria to evaluate the alternatives, such as money and time. For example, there’s no more money to give, so that option is out; however, paid time off is doable, so that’s probably the best option.
• Define success in terms of real gains, not imaginary losses. Sometimes we end up compromising, which means we give something up to get something we want. When this happens, we need to focus on what we got and not dwell on what we didn’t get. If your boss adds a week’s vacation to your vacation bank to resolve the issue, but you can’t take vacation right now or any time soon, walk away focused on the fact that you have more now than you did before you talked to your boss.
Even though they are a natural part of life, most people really don’t like having conflicts, myself included. However, I agree with Thomas Crum (author and presenter on conflict resolution) who said, “the quality of our lives depends not on whether or not we have conflicts, but on how we respond to them.”
If you want the quality of your life to improve, I encourage you to learn how to identify which conflict style is appropriate for the conflicts that come your way and adjust your style accordingly.
Robin is the Training & Development Specialist at Worklogic HR, a human resources outsourcing company in Bakersfield. She creates and delivers training on topics such as harassment prevention, supervisory skills, communication, and conflict resolution. She also provides individual professional development coaching and co-authored the book "Managing Generation Z: How to Recruit, Onboard, Develop, and Retain the Newest Generation in the Workplace."