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The Key to Managing Conflict in the Workplace

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Someone will do it if you don’t.  

This is the thought at the back of every leader’s mind in today’s technology-driven work environment. You know that a new competitor can show up at any time, from anywhere in the world, boasting a new offering that customers will love.  

It’s healthy to have such competition serving the market, but it means companies need to move fast if they want to remain leaders in the industry.  

If you’re going to be successful, you have to operate at the edge of chaos: a highly unpredictable–but productive–work environment where different perspectives constantly bump into each other and create new ideas.  

If you’re going to operate at the edge of chaos, conflict will be part of your workplace culture. 

But certain types of conflict in the workplace can actually be productive. When teams learn to manage it, they can clarify important considerations and accomplish more together.  

 

Living on the edge of chaos and managing conflict in the workplace   

 

The zone of adaptation is the sweet spot between rigidity and chaos. When you’re in that mindset, you can execute what you’re currently doing while considering ways to do it differently.

 

 

 

In the workplace of the past, change was infrequent and episodic. If you were going to move out of the zone of adaptation, the expectation was that you’d move into rigidity. You would consult your supervisor for direction—and ensure that nothing broke.  

But now, when most of what we trade is knowledge, we live in a “move fast and break things” world. We need to learn to thrive on the opposite end of the zone of adaptation: the edge of chaos. 

 

 

The upside to a more collegial work environment operating on the edge of chaos is that innovation happens there. But innovation makes people uncomfortable and invites conflict. 

This is the case in global organizations with multicultural teams, but also in small to midsize companies. Every organization with any degree of diversity–racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, gender, linguistic, cognitive, and more–is challenged by conflict that arises when vastly different ideas are at the table. 

But if leaders focus on eliminating conflict entirely, they’ll miss out on valuable ideas and innovation. It’s impossible to operate at the edge of chaos without some conflict showing up. Instead, you need to get very good at managing conflict in the workplace. 

 

The three stages of conflict 

 

As you attempt to manage conflict that comes up in the workplace (or in any area of life), you’ll progress through three stages. The order of these stages shows up differently depending on the person. You’ll initially deploy one strategy (Stage 1), and if that doesn’t work, you’ll move into another (Stage 2), and eventually resort to the third (Stage 3).  Stage 1 will involve one of the following responses:

 

  

In this model, Stage 1 is the stage where you can consider yourself, the problem, and the other person. This understanding of Stage 1 conflict can allow you to operate more effectively on the edge of chaos. (In Stages 2 and 3, you’ve often gone over the edge.)  

If you understand the three stages of conflict as a leader and help employees understand the dynamics of Stage 1, you can manage conflict in the workplace much more successfully.  

For example, Alexis asserts herself in Stage 1. She has a hard time listening until she’s expressed all the potential solutions she can think of. Jerome analyzes in Stage 1. He needs to take in all the information before he’ll start brainstorming out loud.  

If Alexis and Jerome don’t understand each other’s response to conflict, they might judge each other’s reactions, triggering a shift to Stage 2 or 3 conflict.  

If they do understand each other’s response to conflict, they can recognize that the most productive response for Alexis is asserting herself, while analyzing the information is most productive for Jerome. They will see that they’re both being fully themselves, using their gifts, and operating productively.  

Then, they can view healthy opposition with the other person as an opportunity for adaptation, growth, and learning—not as a threat.  

 

Managing conflict in the workplace by getting back to healthy opposition 

 

Part of staying on the edge of chaos is not slipping into actual chaos. If you sense yourself transitioning into conflict (experiencing more heated emotions and a focus on self-preservation), ask yourself this series of questions to get back to a place of healthy opposition.  

  • What’s most important to me about this situation? 
  • What do I feel is at stake? 
  • What other options are people voicing, besides the one I’m concerned about? 
  • What do I see as a potential worst case? 
  • What do I think is the best way forward? 

 

When you know why the issue matters to you, you can look at the situation more objectively.  

Similarly, if you sense that a colleague is moving into conflict, ask them these questions.  

  • What’s most important to you about this? 
  • What are you concerned is going to happen? 
  • What do you see as the options for resolving this? 

 

Allow them to voice what they fear, then promise them that with your next steps, you’re going to honor what’s important to them and what they’re concerned about. Often, just feeling heard and valued will move someone back to healthy opposition. 

 

How to improve your skills at managing conflict in the workplace 

 

There are a few steps you can take to manage conflict and get comfortable on the edge of chaos.  

  1. Know what happens when you first experience conflict, and when your colleagues do. 

 

Do you accommodate, assert, or analyze in Stage 1? Remember that if someone else’s Stage 1 conflict is different from yours, that’s a valid response for them. This knowledge will help you see conflict as an opportunity instead of a threat. 

  1. Seek out people who will tell you something you initially don’t agree with. 

 

On the vulnerable edge of chaos, you may be tempted to seek out reinforcement from people who are similar to you. But in doing that, you miss out on insights from people who can help you see things differently. You need their perspective to fully understand whatever you’re engaging with. 

  1. Learn how to focus your communication. 

 

Practice changing the narrative, both in the story you tell yourself about what’s happening, and how you speak to others you’re experiencing conflict with. You can choose how you interpret their words and actions: assuming the worst of them or assuming positive intent. And you can choose where you take the interaction: deeper into conflict, or up into productive innovation.  

 

The tools for managing conflict in the workplace 

 

Our world is moving to new styles of leadership and work, where we bring our full selves to each task. We’re gaining a greater awareness of the complexity of the world, and that awareness can make us anxious, but it can also make us hopeful. 

As a leader, it’s gratifying to see people with major differences manage their conflicts and innovate together. Plus, having these skills in your workforce is a significant advantage in the market.  The more perspectives you have at your organization, and the more people feel empowered to share them, the stronger your position for the future. 

You can become incrementally better at managing conflict in the workplace all on your own, but Core Strengths has the tools to make it easier.  

We’ve developed an assessment that provides a holistic view of your strengths, motives, and values, as well as those of your colleagues. Our Conflict Management solution teaches teams at your organization to disagree productively.  

On our platform, you can see your stages of conflict and those of the people you work with, giving you more insight to manage conflict, achieve greater innovation, and continually become more engaged at work.  

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