Minnesota Society of CPAs

Three myths about workplace conflict

Common misconceptions, and strategies to eliminate destructive disagreement

By Anna Maravelas, founder, Thera Rising, Inc. 

“Workplace conflict.” We’ve all heard the phrase more times than we’d probably like. Media outlets and many workplace leaders have focused in on things like bully bosses, harassment and lost productivity. But in my work, I have found that managing conflict itself is still generally not well understood. Following are common misconceptions, and five strategies leaders and frontline employees can implement to eliminate destructive forms of disagreement.

Myth #1: Conflict is about power, egos and control.

When we come into conflict with anyone, be it a supervisor, a co-worker, or even a family member, we tend to fall into a predictable pattern of personality-driven assumptions and blame. For example, we may say to ourselves, “They are being irrational and unreasonable!” or “They’re just power tripping!” But in my 20 years of de-escalating workplace conflicts, I’ve found a set of predictable, almost universal, causes behind behaviors that we often attribute to simple incompetence or ill-will.

The most common triggers of conflict are hurt and fear, and at the root is almost always a frustration: a delay, a demand,a disagreement or a simple miscommunication. But the real breakdown begins with what happens next. We either reach out, or we withdraw. The former requires skill and courage; the latter is reflexive. As a result, we gravitate to the latter. From there, factions form. A workplace will generally fragment, and bystanders will be pulled into the fray and forced to choose sides. Worse, if the o$ ended parties are leaders, the tension between individuals can become a standoff between entire departments. Recognizing these early stages of contempt goes a long ways toward diffusing a potential crisis before it can get off the ground.

Myth #2: Conflicts happen because someone is being unreasonable.

When we feel we’ve been wronged, it’s easy to view ourselves as an innocent victim, and the perceived aggressor as a bully or a hothead. Again, that’s the reflexive approach (as opposed to the reflective approach of searching for underlying reasons). In reality, conflicts almost never break down into such clear delineations.

One common cause of tension between co-workers is a perceived barrier to an important goal. That barrier may be a hidden constraint or pressure, or it may be the result of a poorly designed process. Often, when viewed from afar – or from outside – these outside factors seem obvious. But when we’re embroiled, it can seem chaotic and unpredictable. This perception, combined with the frustration and hurt that can result, can drive people to make three costly errors in addressing the situation.

First, people tend to withdraw. They disengage from the person they see as having wronged them and, as outlined above, unconsciously begin to turn their co-workers against the offending party. This shuts down the dialog necessary to address day-to-day-operational issues.

Second, each faction will personalize the situation. They reduce the conflict into simple (but usually inaccurate) terms – the other side is wrong, and the problem at hand is a result of their character flaws. Once people start thinking in these terms, resolving the situation becomes contingent on bringing the other side down. The conflict resolution process becomes destructive rather than constructive.

Finally, each side begins to “vent,” and the story becomes exaggerated – at best. Those with friends in either faction begin to circulate stories, and eventually these stories make their way to each side’s core group. By this point, it’s likely that assumptions and speculations have been greatly (and sometimes maliciously) distorted. This reinforces the hurt felt by both sides, and leads to feelings of betrayal and hopelessness.

A skilled leader will search out the underlying stressors that corrode relationships. Often, the leader will catch the problem before it can manifest. But once the rift develops, the leader must be able to get past the mindset of “who harmed whom” and provide a forum for the parties to discuss root causes to have any lasting success in resolving the issue.

Myth #3: Conflict resolution means convincing the other party that they are wrong.

In reality, even once a conflict has been sorted out, parties seldom agree on past events. Memory is fallible, especially on emotionally charged subjects. As we mentally replay events, we tend to modify the details to make ourselves look better at the expense of accuracy – and the other party.

This means that once the parties agree to hear one another out, leaders need to shift attention from the continual “he said, she said,” which burns valuable hours without providing progress, resolution or consensus, to what each party is willing to do differently in the future.

Five tips to resolve conflict

There are a number of things that anyone can keep in mind to help avoid and resolve conflicts, or to keep themselves cool in the midst.

1. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t reach agreement about the past. Not only is it highly unlikely, ultimately, it is unnecessary.

2. You don’t need to agree with someone’s point of view to understand it. Understanding is essential to empathy and to breeding goodwill, and is essential to coming to a satisfying, productive, long-term resolution.

3. Separate interpretations from facts. We become so wedded to the way we perceive things that it may be necessary to seek the opinion of an objective observer (not a member of your faction) to help distinguish between the two.

4. Stay humble and curious. Ask, “Can you help me understand why…?” We can’t conduct a search for understanding if we’re indignant. However, being passive is equally useless. Practice the art of being both warm and assertive.

5. Negotiate a series of agreements that break dysfunctional patterns of communication and decision-making. This leads to a constructive, future oriented dialog rather than dwelling on the past.

When we’re caught in the middle of a conflict, it’s easy to fall back on reflexive behaviors and let the situation, and our resentment, shape our perceptions and behaviors. But with skill, insight and courage, we can avoid the mistakes that lead to destructive forms of disagreement, act out of curiosity, and seek to understand the other party’s challenges, fears and point of view.