How to Address Conflict in the Workplace

Sometimes it seems like working in a group is synonymous with conflict. If there's a notable issue between two colleagues, though, chances are tensions have already been mounting for some time. To avoid damaging your team’s ability to work well together, it’s important to address the possibility of conflict directly before it comes to a head. While no one likes dealing with conflict, these five exercises can help improve your team's conflict management skills.

Five Exercises to Manage Conflict Resolution in the Workplace

  1. Get team members to consider how they appear to others. Frame questions using the phrase “In your world…” to help your team realize that “normal” is a relative term to what they’re used to in their lives. Ask questions like, “In your world, what do you notice first about someone?” or, “What makes a good first impression?” Ask your team to notice the way they present themselves (in terms of physical appearance and non-verbal behavior) and then based off of their answers, how they might feel if a co-worker were to judge them the same way. This simple self-assessment will help your team to start being mindful of how they might be judging their co-workers based off too little information.
  2. Consider one another’s backgrounds. Ask questions like, “How important is punctuality in your world?” or, “What level of personal space do you think is appropriate for the workplace?” If one member of a team gets a little too close for comfort while they speak to you, for example, consider that they might have been raised in an environment where that behavior was common or necessary. Then have your team members reflect on which of their behaviors might be considered offensive to someone from a different background or culture.
  3. Consider how teammates speak to one another. Ask team members, “In your world, is small talk helpful for building relationships, or useless chatter?", “In your world, is joking and humor in the workplace appreciated and welcomed, or unprofessional and distracting?” or, “In your world, is a promise an aspiration or a guarantee?” Your team might be surprised to learn other teammates have very different definitions and expectations of the same concept. Use this to encourage them to be as clear as possible when communicating. This will help minimize future misunderstandings.
  4. Reflect on how the team thinks about the work they’re doing. How a team approaches their work can be a leading source of conflict. Ask questions like, “What’s more important, the bigger picture or the small details?” or, “Is uncertainty a threat or an opportunity?” Try rotating who takes the lead during certain phases of a project based on these answers. The more creative, big-picture thinkers are great for leading project kick-offs, brainstorm sessions, and creating the roadmap, while the detail-oriented, analytical team members can focus on organizing, implementing, and maintaining.
  5. Find out how teammates manage emotions. Ask questions like, “In your world, which emotions are acceptable to show in the workplace?” or, “If you’re feeling unhappy/frustrated/annoyed with a coworker, how will you express that?” If employees know the tolerance levels and expectations of their fellow team members, they will be able to respond more empathetically in emotional situations. Research shows teams who feel psychologically safe are the most successful at collaboration, and the ability to read and respond appropriately to one another’s emotions is a key component.

Takeaway: Conflict in the workplace often arises from misunderstanding and can be addressed with overcommunication. While these five exercises are great for a new team just starting to work together, established teams can also benefit from taking a step back to consider how they're working with others.

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