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Three Ways Leaders Can Navigate Workplace Conflict

Throughout our lifetime, we all experience conflict in our personal and professional lives. Sometimes, this conflict is with others, such as a colleague. Other times, it’s with ourselves.

In this blog, we share three ways leaders can navigate workplace conflict with expert advice and guidance from leadership coach Dominique.

Types of Conflict in the Workplace

Impacting approximately 85% of us, conflict comes in many forms. Research by Harvard University shares that the three most common forms of conflict are:

  • Relationship conflict

  • Value conflict

  • Task conflict

Each of these types of conflict can arise in the workplace. Relationship conflict, for example, may occur when we work with people who have different views from us or whom we have different personalities from.

Meanwhile, value conflict arises when we work with people who don’t share our values. Sometimes, a value difference can hinder working relationships, especially when we think of office politics, religion, and beliefs.

Task conflict can also lead to conflict. This is especially true when our ways of working differ from how other people work well. For example, think of the last time you felt frustrated with a colleague who had left an important task until the last minute. If you pride yourself on time management, this may cause internal and external conflict.

The Impact of Workplace Conflict

Regardless of the type of conflict we experience, sometimes it can be expected. But other times, conflict can come as a surprise. Irrespective of whether we expect it or not, workplace conflict can take a significant toll on our well-being, not to mention our passion for our role and our relationships with our colleagues.

For example, workplace conflict can lead to:

  • Stress

  • Anxiety

  • Physical health problems, such as headaches and fatigue

  • Decreased productivity

  • Low morale

  • High turnover rates

  • Increased employee absence

  • Reduced trust levels

Woman thinking about workplace conflict

Three Ways Leaders Can Navigate Workplace Conflict

As a leader, your own experience and tolerance for conflict play a large part in how you are likely to respond, especially when taken by surprise.

‘Know thy self’, an inscription on the entryway to the centuries-old Temple of Apollo in Delphi, is a great place to aid how you can navigate conflict.

To support you, here are three ways leaders can navigate workplace conflict, as shared by Dominique.

Know Your Relationship With Conflict

Explore some situations across your life and work that you would define as a conflict. For some people, this might include:

  • The result of breaking an agreement

  • Not meeting a standard

  • Being let down in some way

  • Disagreeing with a decision, timeline, or viewpoint

  • Standing up for something that personally matters

  • A period of change

In early life and as it has progressed, what has been your experience of watching others in conflict and the impact of rules you were expected to abide by?

Think about how comfortable and safe you felt when challenged by others or when challenging others in debates, discussions, idea sharing, or disagreements were taking place. Also ask yourself:

  • How often you came across conflict?

  • How has that affected how you deal with real and perceived difficulties today?

Pay attention to how you describe what comes up in this exploration. How often are the words tinged with negativity, fear, or dread? How often are they words that signal positivity, curiosity, or energy?

The answer to these questions indicates how you have perceived past conflict. Therefore, it’s part of your subconscious response when ‘similar’ situations reveal themselves or are anticipated.

Also, notice how you have felt and behaved in the past. If the same situation occurred now, would there be a better response? Consider too, how one person’s conflict is another’s lively and fun discussion?

These reflections can bring consciousness to habits in behaviour and beliefs, allowing you the opportunity to adjust appropriately and to focus on changing your thinking about conflict.

Know How You Feel, so You Can Manage How You Feel

So many things impact how you feel on a given day at a given time. Biologically and physiologically, sleep, nutrition, level of exercise, and general health all influence our mood.

Some of the above we can and should control to aid mood and behaviour management. For example, many studies and research on sleep show how vital this is to brain and body function, especially as a tired brain struggles to focus.

Woman looking stressed in front of laptop at work

Our brains predict (often subconsciously), which can cause problems if little time has been put into preparing for a situation that could include disagreements. Consciously considering situations that could get contentious is a way for you to notice the feelings it generates and interrupt an unhelpful habitual way of responding. This is especially useful as you know that people feed off and mirror the behaviour of others, sometimes escalating a problem unnecessarily.

Frequently we hear people using language such as, ‘I know what they are going to do (or say)’ and ‘ I know what they think about this (or me)’. These kinds of predictions, beliefs, and thoughts can send you down an unwarranted behaviour and mood route that creates or heightens conflict.

But what can you do to mitigate this?

When you have a strong belief or view, and you have the gift of a ‘known’ situation to be faced, some people find that testing and checking that thinking with another helps to broaden context and perspective and to calm emotions. This technique can be particularly helpful if you find that feeling uncomfortable prevents you from facing a difficult situation.

In planning for a potentially tough conversation (or any situation), a tip that has worked with many leaders is to identify the best mood to be in for that situation - one that will help you be clear-headed.

When you name an emotion or feeling you want to embody, it’s easier to notice if it’s changing and then address it. For example, if you think feeling balanced is a good mood for the situation, it’s much easier to spot that changing to feeling tense.

Man breathing in fresh air after workplace conflict

Taking a deep breath, a short break, a drink of water, and even changing your body position can be ideas you employ to get you back to the emotion you want to embody.

The technique of talking through an issue with a trusted person can also aid those who avoid conflict due to their discomfort with feeling uncomfortable.

Remember, feelings are a signal that something needs your attention. Ignoring feelings or not addressing them builds stress and disharmony within yourself.

Keep Your Ego in Check

Has your ego ever gotten in the way of an argument?

Has the need to win, seem more articulate, more intelligent, or more experienced meant that you had pushed for something when other or better ideas were being or trying to be raised?

Alternatively, has your inner voice held you back from speaking up, standing your ground, or adding perspective? Both examples refer to the sense of self to your status.

Neurologically we are programmed to value being valued; it’s a survival strategy for the human species.

If I am valued, I will be supported. For some, keeping quiet can be seen as a way to prevent their importance from being reduced. When in fact, staying quiet may do just the opposite.

Likewise, those who have practised being more forthright to demonstrate significance can reduce their appeal through their unwillingness to listen to others or back down.

Overuse of any strategy or habit can be detrimental. Putting your ego at the forefront – how I am perceived, judged, and thought of by others – can detract from what is really at stake. This can be particularly difficult when a conflict arises unexpectedly.

What’s important here is to identify quickly what really matters about a situation. When thrown, you may find you become defensive or attacking in your reaction, often as a threat to your status has been perceived.

But questions such as, "I hadn’t expected that reaction; let me understand this from your perspective", give space for getting to the heart of the matter.

This aligns with the first piece around creating ‘safety’ in challenging situations. It also supports the points in the second piece, helping to calm emotions which in turn allows for clearer thinking.

To Conclude

Conflict is part of life and is managed best when you are open to getting to the heart of what matters. Conflict viewed as an opportunity over a fight allows for more situations to be just that, a chance to learn and reach the best conclusion possible.

As a leader, your ability to handle clashes with respect for all parties can move the conflict to the space of healthy debate and agreements to differ. It can also strengthen relationships.

If you’ve been experiencing conflict in the workplace lately or have recently been informed by a team member that conflict is present in the workplace, we’re on hand to support you.

At The Leadership Coaches, many of our skilled coaches have experience managing conflict, conflict resolution in a hybrid workplace, dealing with difficult situations, and leading through change.

To find out how we can support you, contact us today.


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