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Article No.: 18-2, February 1, 2018

Article Title: Minimizing Conflict at Work: Whose Job is it?

Author: Linda Gravett, Ph.D., SHRM-SCP, CEQC

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I’m not aware of anyone, including myself, who wakes up on any given morning with the thought, “I hope I get into an argument today.  That would be way cool.”  Unfortunately, though, if weLinda Gravett photo work with a diverse group of people who have distinct backgrounds, personalities, and education we’re bound to have a few disagreements here and there.  The key is not letting disagreements turn into outright conflict that puts a drag on productivity.  That’s not HR’s job:  it’s everybody’s job.
My approach in this article is to view disagreement as an opportunity for agreement once individual issues are put “on the table.”  We can’t work in a vacuum without understanding others’ perspectives and ideas.  This knowledge can actually make us stronger and smarter.
In my work and research, I’ve found that there are six common reasons why differences across people at work occur, in this order:

  •  Possession (my space, my radio, my project, my friend)
  • Environment
  • Opinions
  • Methods (my way is best)
  • Beliefs
  • Control (not only is my way best, we are doing things my way)

Just being aware of your individual “hot buttons” can alert you to the need to prepare for tricky conversations that could result in conflict that gets out of hand.  My experience has taught me that most of us go through phases that lead to that out-of-hand point:  frustration with a person or situation; a confirming event that solidifies irritation; one’s reaction; and results from the reaction.  Stopping a disagreement in the frustration phase will obviously keep individuals from spending a great deal of time arguing (or worse, not talking to one another) and hence, not focusing on the work at hand.
My favorite approach for stopping conflict in the frustration phase is to begin asking questions, and here are my favorite ones to start a real dialogue:

1) What would you like to accomplish during our discussion?
2) What’s your frustration at this moment?
3) How do you think we can resolve this issue?
4) I sense that I’ve said something that troubles you – can you explain what this is?
5) What do you need from me to move forward?

If you’re providing some feedback to a person, the more objective and specific you can be, the less likely misunderstanding and frustration will erupt.  For instance, saying to a co-worker “You ignore the team ground rules and I hate that” isn’t as helpful as saying “You’ve been 10 to 15 minutes late for our last three team meetings, and we’re not as effective without your input.” 
Perhaps as a New Year’s Resolution you can decide to be a problem preventer instead of part of the problem in a volatile workplace.  A problem preventer has these characteristics:

  •  Speaks up when they see a behavior that might result in conflict or miscommunication
  • Provides concrete, specific feedback when others are engaging in unproductive behaviors
  • Thinks before speaking; actively listens
  • Doesn’t judge others’ ideas, input, or views 
  • Tunes into others’ feelings


If you have any questions or need more information about this article, please contact Dr. Gravett by email at lsg@justthebasics.com.

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