Managing conflict at work is a complex matter. Some 60 to 80% of problems in organisations are believed to come from strained relationships between employees – not from any doubt over personal skills or motivation.
So how can you be assertive, and build your professional reputation, whilst heading off aggression and confrontation at work?
For learning and development expert David Thorp, the key is to familiarise yourself with the culture of the business. “Every organisation has a unique set of management styles. To get your etiquette right in the workplace, you need to assess that.” For example, is the culture strictly hierarchical, or more laid-back? “A business that has relatively informal power lines makes it easier for you to communicate ideas and get credited for those ideas.” Understand the structure first, says Thorp, and then try to understand your manager. “A good boss will help you along in your career; a bad one will take your ideas as their own.”
If you’re young and looking to develop your career, or simply new to the company, it can help to have a personal set of strategies to anticipate, ward off and successfully deal with difficult situations. “A useful technique is meta-mirroring,” Thorp says. “Essentially, this means being able to see things from the other person’s view. Say you have a meeting with your boss and you suspect tensions will run high. If you can mentally rehearse the conversation at your desk, ahead of the meeting, you can take into consideration what the other person’s likely to say.” In practice, you move from your chair, to the chair facing you, so you can see their landscape. “You ask yourself – how would I respond? It makes you much more relaxed, when you have to confront something.”
Dealing with conflict involves developing empathy and strengthening your interpersonal skills. “This is essential in building a career nowadays when you can’t rely on being with the same organisation for life.” For Thorp, having good interpersonal skills is a vital differentiator when you go for a job interview. “Everyone else there might have the same qualifications and experience you have. In that scenario, it’s your interpersonal skills that will set you apart.”
Fi McDonald, a trainer and practice assessor for companies including Foster Care Associates, outlines three strategies that young employees in particular can use to minimise conflict. “The first is to use your ‘adult brain’,” she says. “Everyone has aspects of their personality that are ‘child, parent or adult.’ The adult brain sees situations factually, logically and with minimal emotion. But during stressful times, our child brain tends to come to the fore.’ It’s easy to take things personally, and this can become all-consuming. “The child is likely to be the playful side of your personality but also tends to focus on things not being fair. So distancing yourself and seeing things from the adult perspective is really useful. It helps you to reframe the scenario, and take things less personally.”
McDonald offers several strategies to handle colleagues we don’t get on with. “Often, what upsets us in others is aspects of ourselves that we don’t feel comfortable with. Identifying that can help you deal with it.” Successfully handling conflict is about putting things in proportion, and not letting them become overwhelming. “Try to think, ‘what can I learn from this?’ If you’re prone to a victim mentality, you can’t grow, and this zaps energy. Stay as professional as you can.” Negative energy creates a downward spiral, “because what you focus on gets bigger. Focus on the resolution, not the problem.”
In difficult situations with colleagues, “go to your manager early,” McDonald says; “don’t let things fester.” It’s also essential to have good support outside work. “This can be friends or family who will support you. Look for someone you trust and admire, who can be objective. Someone who’s achieved what you want to achieve can be really good for talking through situations. This helps enormously with getting perspective. If it’s interfering with your life and happiness, there’s always something you can do.”
When things go too far
What about situations that escalate too much, or become potentially aggressive? Nicholas Whitehead, an independently accredited mediator, says that avoiding litigation is beneficial to all parties. If talking to HR doesn’t resolve the situation, or for personal reasons you don’t want to speak to HR, that’s when a professional mediator can be useful. “Mediation can do three key things,” Whitehead argues. “Firstly, it’s confidential. When disputes get to an employment tribunal or county court it’s potentially embarrassing for you and the company; mediation avoids that.”
Secondly, it’s much cheaper than going to court. “Tribunals can run into thousands of pounds and can take a long time. Mediation costs a few hundred pounds and can potentially be resolved in a day. The mediator sees both parties separately in the morning, then in the same room in the afternoon.” Thirdly, the most useful benefit of mediation “is that if the situation is resolved, the disputing colleagues can ultimately work together again. If it reaches the litigation stage, the animosity only increases and at least one of the colleagues will have to leave the office – if not the company.”
Top tips from the experts
Take time out. In a heated discussion, David Thorp advises, “leave the room – say you will meet again in 15 minutes. It gives you both time to calm down, and you’ll be able to talk to each other more easily afterwards.”
Send emails to yourself. It’s good to have evidence of workplace arguments. “This particularly works,” says Thorp, “if the conflict arises because you feel your boss isn’t giving you credit for your ideas.”
Don’t sweep it under the carpet. “When you get frustrated by something, as long as you are doing something about it, you will feel better,” says Fi McDonald. “Whether that’s talking to the team, addressing your work-life balance or seeking outside help; the key is to be active about the situation.”
Mark Blayney Stuart is Business Journalist of the Year, Wales Media Awards 2017 and Former Head of Research at the Chartered Institute of Marketing.