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Why Conflict Happens at Work, and How You Can Think About It

We all experience conflict on the job. Just the act of trying to coordinate activities with others — or, actually, any attempt at working together — can trigger conflict, even if everyone involved cares about the same things.

A great deal of interpersonal conflict comes from overreaction or acting out in response to actual or anticipated events. People who don’t feel good have trouble behaving as if they do; oppositional and confrontational behaviors can be triggered by feelings of insecurity or jealousy or by concerns about being unsupported, overlooked, or unappreciated.

It’s surprisingly important to recognize that the person on the other side of the disagreement is not exactly like you and may not operate the way you do. That creates room for you to try to understand what they’re really like and what they really want instead of thinking that something is wrong because they’re not reacting exactly the way you are.

On the other hand, it’s equally important to recognize that the other person isn’t trying to harm you — they just want something you might not understand yet, and they want it in a way that might be uncomfortable for you — and you have the opportunity to try and figure it out.

Identifying Conflict Styles

Conflict styles can be shaped by the way someone’s parents handled disagreements, how their siblings fought, by the norms of the managers at their first job or the techniques they learned at a seminar. Some people fold their tents immediately when challenged and clam up as if they never actually had a view of their own. Others argue and rebut as if they care more about winning than whatever the point actually is, as if giving in would mean giving up on themselves.

Passive-aggressive people pretend that they agree by giving verbal assent or nodding even though the rest of their gestures, side conversations, and subsequent negative stance show that they never really agreed. Folks who are anxious or afraid that circumstances will cause their failure or disruption sometimes channel those fears and anxieties into anger. Anger is often perceived as a stronger emotion. It’s focused and assertive and provides protective cover for fear and anxiety, which can be perceived as weakness.

Anxious people may also micromanage everything that falls within their purview as a way of reasserting their authority, snipe at project details, turn their noses up at lofty goals, or shift from criticizing the project itself to the people associated with it, picking on small imperfections and behaving in ways that range from ever-so-slightly, to overtly, disrespectful.

Taking Steps Toward Conflict Resolution

To work toward a resolution to the conflict, begin by observing the roles that people are playing:

  • Are they sharing opinions that are variations on a theme, or are they taking incompatible positions that require real reconciliation?
  • Are they articulating diverging positions specifically because they want to go on record? And if that’s the case, is it for the sake of holding the stage, to be sure the opinion is registered, or because they really want something to change?
  • Are they representing a constituency?
  • Do they serve the group as the devil’s advocate?
  • Are they willing to take risks that other members of the group aren’t?

When you notice someone’s excessive reaction, you can try probing a bit: “Quincy, you sounded quite upset during our discussion about the new email campaign. Was there something bad going on that I didn’t notice? Was there a significant problem that I overlooked? I’m concerned that you were so distressed when nothing struck me as being too terrible. Please fill me in.”

Whatever motivated the participants to disagree, it’s naïve to think that reconciliation and resolution will take place without overt measures or targeted effort. Next week, we’ll look at the important aspects of communication that will help move people from a combative stance to one that permits conciliation.

Onward and upward,


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