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Can’t we all just get along? A guide to conflict management styles

October 18, 2022 - 13 min read
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    Conflict is an unavoidable part of any workplace, as well as in any relationship. Whether you’re at odds with a coworker, your spouse, or your best friend, how you manage those conflicts makes all the difference. It’s an essential part of building strong personal relationships and maintaining healthy business relationships.

    On some levels, we each hold different conflict management styles that help inform how we react to conflict. At BetterUp, this is something we discuss in the employee onboarding process.

    The way you manage conflicts at work can have a significant impact on the success or failure of your organization. Yet surprisingly little attention is devoted to this important topic in the literature of management. Learning how to manage conflicts in the workplace isn’t easy. This is especially true if you don’t know which management style will work best with your specific employee or situation.

    Conflicts can arise from any number of sources in the workplace, from a disagreement over a meeting agenda to personal animosity between two employees. Understanding the root of the conflict is necessary for effectively resolving it. 

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    What is the goal of conflict management?

    The purpose of conflict management in the workplace is to avoid or manage conflict in the most productive way possible. Effective communication, decision-making, and problem-solving are all key components of conflict management. The style that works best for your team may not be the best for another. 

    The first step to managing a conflict is understanding what kind of conflict you're dealing with. Understanding different types of conflicts will help you better understand how to approach each one.

    There are two types of conflict — productive and unhealthy. Believe it or not, you actually want productive conflict on your team. When employees can disagree with one another in a respectful way, it’s a sign of high psychological safety. It boosts innovation, creativity, and problem-solving skills. Although productive conflict isn’t always easy, it's often necessary in order to come up with the best solutions. 

    Unhealthy conflict is often characterized by anger, resentment, or aggression. This kind of conflict can poison relationships. Whereas productive conflicts stem from a healthy respect for one another, unhealthy conflicts come from frustration. One or more parties feel as if they’re not being heard or acknowledged. 

    The intention of conflict management is to bring everyone to a working consensus. Now, this doesn’t mean that everyone will agree, or that challenges won’t arise in the future. What it means is that people can (together) find the best path to move forward, and leave the conversation feeling as if they’ve been heard and taken seriously. Depending on the situation, you may have to adjust your conflict management strategy to come to the best solution.

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    5 styles of conflict management

    At some point in our lives we've learned from family members, friends, co-workers and others various methods of handling conflicts. These methods often fall into one of five styles (or approaches): accommodating, avoidance, compromising, collaborating, and competing. Each method of handling conflicts has its own pros and cons. The circumstances and intended outcome determine whether one (or more) of these approaches might be successful or appropriate for handling conflicts.

    Accommodating

    The accommodating style is the type of conflict management style most people are accustomed to. It’s generally the easiest way to go when looking for a good middle ground. This style is often characterized by mild confrontation and a willingness to give in or concede points. Employees with this style may be seen as passive, conflict-averse, and non-confrontational. 

    The accommodating style can work when there are no clear winners in an argument. However, it should not be used when one person's needs are being ignored or marginalized. It is also not advisable for situations where one party is trying to take advantage of another by not speaking up for their own rights and interests. Unfortunately, an accommodating approach will likely escalate the conflict. It can allow the other party more room to push boundaries and make unreasonable demands.

    Avoiding

    The avoidant conflict management style is very different from the accommodating styles. It’s a passive approach where one avoids the situation, opting not to speak up. This can be problematic in that this style may not provide input or opinion. This could lead to a lack of understanding, or to the avoidant person not getting their needs met. 

    It’s difficult for people who have a different conflict management style to understand this approach, since it is so foreign from their own. The avoidant conflict management style does not work when there are many people involved or when there are high emotions (like anger) present. If someone is feeling particularly angry or frustrated, the avoidant approach can leave them feeling dismissed and unheard. In this case, conflict management would involve addressing any underlying issues and emotions. This won’t happen if the parties involved try to avoid the situation altogether.

    Compromising

    The compromising conflict management style is useful when the issue isn’t a big one, or when the parties are willing to work together. If an issue needs to be resolved quickly, a compromise might get you to the fastest solution. 

    Some cynics refer to compromise as “lose-lose,” since both parties generally have to give up something they want to reach an agreement. It's often ineffective when there are serious disagreements about how to resolve the problem. 

    Collaborating

    The collaborating style is most appropriate when there are many stakeholders. It can also be useful when there are complex and difficult problems or a lack of clarity around boundaries. However, it's not the best option when it's unclear who the decision maker is, there's a need for quick decisions, or when people have very strong opinions and want to get their way. The collaborating conflict management style provides a safe environment for all parties involved in order to work together to achieve the goal. A strength of this style is accomplishing that while still maintaining each person’s individual identity and needs.

    Competing

    The competing conflict management style is fairly straightforward: the goal is to win. However, winning can look very different depending on the parties involved and what’s at stake.

    In the workplace, a competing style might arise between two employees vying for one promotion. However, it might also come up when the stakes are less clear. For example, a new manager that feels the need to assert authority might unconsciously find themselves in competition with their team.

    two-people-shaking-hands-conflict-management

    Tips for managers

    Conflict management skills are important, but so are strong team members who work together using these techniques. A leader needs a high degree of emotional intelligence to navigate disagreements between conflicting parties.

    If you want your team to be productive and happy, here are a few ideas to help them avoid unhealthy conflicts: 

    1. Be clear about your expectations 

    A lack of clarity can create room for misunderstandings and disagreements. You can help minimize the potential for this by outlining your expectations clearly from the start. Clear communication can help minimize conflict in the workplace.

    2. Be open about feedback 

    When teams have a culture of feedback, there’s a free-flowing exchange of ideas. Team members are less likely to feel threatened when someone disagrees with them. Be open with your team about feedback. Make it a regular part of your communication, and encourage them to share feedback with you as well.

    3. Don't take things personally

    Remember that work is work. Everyone is trying to get something done, and everyone has factors outside of work that may affect how they show up. If someone comes off the wrong way, assume that it has nothing to do with you. Try not to get defensive or combative. If you need to, take time to calm yourself down before you respond.

    4. Get a coach

    There are a lot of benefits that come from working with a coach. But as much as it impacts individuals, the benefits of a strong coaching culture can ripple out to the team. BetterUp’s coaching has been shown to reduce conflict within teams by 24%. Not only that, but teams benefit from improved communication and a stronger sense of connection at work.

    5. Don’t play favorites

    When negotiating a conflict, it’s important to be impartial — even if you feel one person is right. A good manager will go to bat for their entire team. If you start playing favorites, you’ll inevitably create discontent among the people on your team.

    6. Invest time in learning to manage conflict

    You don’t have to learn conflict resolution skills on the fly. Consider investing in formal training in communication, mediation, or dispute resolution. Every manager can benefit from working on these skills, either in group training or with a coach.

    7. Know when to stay out of it

    Sometimes, “hands off” is the best approach. If your team members are experiencing a minor conflict, it might not be a bad idea to let them talk it out themselves. A manager getting involved in every conversation can actually escalate tensions or make things worse. On the other hand, allowing them to work it out might help them develop a better rapport in the future.

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    When to escalate a workplace conflict to HR

    Just as it’s important to know when to stay out of it, it's important for managers to know when to escalate a conflict. Some conflict situations are best handled by human resources. There may also be certain procedural or legal steps to take.

    Here are some situations that absolutely should be brought to HR:

    - When someone is being mistreated or bullied at work 

    - When performance management is being discussed 

    - When workplace bullying or harassment is occurring (or other signs of a hostile work environment)

    - When there’s a potential instance of discrimination

    - When there's an interpersonal conflict between two employees that involves repeated conflict, yelling, or threats

    - When one employee needs to be coached on how to speak more respectfully to others 

    - If the person has come to you with a complaint about another employee

    Human resources professionals have extensive experience with these kinds of situations and can help intervene. They may be able to diffuse the situation or take the appropriate actions. You shouldn’t hesitate to reach out.

    Final thoughts

    Effective conflict management in the workplace can be challenging, but it's possible to get better at it. Understanding the different conflict management styles of others can help you learn to navigate different situations. 

    No matter which style you use, you need to balance technique with emotional intelligence and assertiveness. You need to be able to integrate viewpoints, communicate effectively and calmly, and listen actively. Most importantly, help your team feel heard and respected. Let your team know that you’re on their side, and that the goal is to solve problems together.

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    Published October 18, 2022

    Allaya Cooks-Campbell

    BetterUp Staff Writer

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