June 12, 2018

Are You a Peacekeeper? Find Your Conflict Style and Resolve Tension at Work

You don't have to be the boss to make things better

Everyone has unique strengths and weaknesses shaped over a lifetime.

Recently, I discovered a Gallup assessment used to identify strengths. I took the test and found that “harmony” was my strongest strength out of 34 possible strength themes.

The report said:

“When others start to argue about their pet theory or concept, you steer clear of the debate, preferring to talk about practical, down-to-earth matters on which you can all agree. In your view we are all in the same boat, and we need this boat to get where we are going. It is a good boat. There is no need to rock it just to show that you can.”

So lately I have been thinking a lot about how this tendency of mine has positive and negative impacts on myself, my work, and my peers at work.

What has come up again and again for me is conflict. My desire is always to end the conflict as quickly as possible, by finding things we can all agree on rather than focusing on the differences of opinion and perspective that make it hard to relate.

Of course, that’s what most people want — nobody really likes conflict that much — but we all have different approaches for how to get there. Someone whose strength is practicality might see my peacekeeping ways as unproductive and avoiding the bigger issue at hand. So even the ways we want to resolve conflict can cause conflict.

Is there just no way to win?

At work, there is often so much on the line — big goals, reputations, ambitions, fears — so it’s easy for tempers to flare. Yet at the same time, we are expected to act professionally at all times.

With so many different personalities, perspectives, and needs mixed together, tension is bound to arise. Despite holiday and vacation breaks, you’re with your coworkers close to 2,000 hours a year; that’s a lot of time!

Whether it’s a personal disagreement you have with a coworker, or the whole team is going through a stressful situation together, tension at work must be addressed and resolved. It is not usually something that gets better with time on its own. Here’s how to work on it.

What is your strength?

You can take an assessment like the Gallup test above, or you can reflect on your past experiences and preferences to see what you usual conflict style is.

For example, as a person whose strength is harmony, I can think back on so many meetings where I felt it was most important to speak up as things started to derail and get tense. Even if I wasn’t the leader, I would try to jump in and keep things flowing.

Think back on your last few meetings, and especially ones where things were a little dicey. How did you react? What did you think would be the best way to resolve the issue?

Maybe you’re an idea person — when things get tough, you come up with 10 different options for ways to proceed. Maybe you’re a thinker — you watch the conflict unfold, carefully taking everything in, and waiting for the right moment to weigh in. Or maybe you’re direct — you help people spell out exactly what’s going on, or tell the group what needs to happen next.

Once you know your personal style, you can leverage it (instead of just wondering if you should do anything). Tension is inevitable, but you can be prepared to tackle it effectively.

Tension at work sucks

Whether or not the harmony strength burns brightly within you, tension at work will still take a toll – on you, your peers, and even sometimes your management – extending the reach of its impact to reputations and relationships.

You don’t have to be directly involved in a tense situation to feel or experience it as if you were an active participant. Examples of tense work scenarios span a broad spectrum, but include:

  • Change in priorities or restructuring of a department/org. The uncertainty of the future during a restructure, whether on a large company scale or smaller unit/department scale, doesn’t encourage or bring out the best in people. Fear and anxiety can create a you-versus-me environment; competition for scarce resources, jobs, and money, can slash collaboration and teamwork down to nothing and instead increase uncooperative or even backstabbing behavior.
  • Budget cuts. Similar to the example above, budget cuts bring with them a similar level of uncertainty and the possibility of downsizing. A downflux of work, or decisions being made to hold projects back indefinitely, impacts morale and job satisfaction. People are on edge and extra sensitive to “reading into” conversations, drawing negative conclusions where none were intended. Conflict is much more likely when people are assuming the worst.
  • Conflict between peers, or between teams and management. Personality clashes, disagreements on strategy or approach, or poor work performance are all sources and causes of tension at work. Regardless of how the tension started, the impact and consequences can lead to passive aggressive tactics as people struggle to appear professional while inwardly feeling frustrated. The closer these colleagues are to you, the fewer degrees of separation that exist, the more likely you’ll sense, feel, or hear about the issues. When the conflict is between a team and their management, the power dynamic makes it much more likely that people will gripe about issues without speaking up directly to their leaders (often out of fear of retribution). Relationships suffer and can create long-lasting ripple effects down the road.
  • General dissatisfaction with work, life, anything and everything… Getting caught up or unwillingly pulled into someone else’s whirlwind of dissatisfaction and unhappiness is particularly challenging; it’s an “it’s them, not you” situation that drags everyone around the unhappy colleague down, down, down. Nothing but the person themself can make things better, which means until that change happens nothing anyone does is right and any interaction is fraught with conflict and tension.

In all of these scenarios, where do you fall? What’s your role? For example:

  • Colleague 1: involved in a conflict with colleague #2
  • Colleague 2: involved in a conflict with colleague #1
  • You: not directly involved, but feeling the tension and conflict
  • Manager: responsible for diffusing conflict, or maybe even involved in the conflict

Over time, feelings such as these are typical:

  • dread about going to work every morning
  • frustration
  • gloom
  • hopelessness
  • lack of motivation
  • withdrawn
  • unsure who to talk to and what to say

So how can you handle these various tense work situations when things aren’t really up to you? How can you approach this tension and conflict in a constructive way, that makes a positive impact, particularly when it is not up to you to resolve or your power is limited?

Collaborative confrontation tactics

“Confrontation” doesn’t have to be aggressive or accusatory; done right, it can be a way of communicating with the intent to bring awareness to a problem or situation and improve it. But the approach is important.

And if you don’t have authority to end conflict directly, there’s no guarantee your efforts to diffuse it will work. It is kind of like being stuck in a maze with no way out because it doesn’t matter which way you turn, you won’t get any closer to escape. But it’s worth trying.

Becoming known as someone who helps resolve conflict and get things done is a benefit to you. Not only will your work life run more smoothly, but you will be seen as a leader among your peers.

Should you get involved?

You first need to make a decision to either get involved or not get involved. The middle ground will get you nowhere. Gossiping or complaining about the conflict with other coworkers will only cause more negativity (and could even damage your reputation), so if you want to stay out of it, just stay out of it.

However, if you are directly involved in the conflict, think you could offer help in resolving it, or need it resolved because the conflict is affecting your productivity or work, here are two ways to proceed:

  • Confront the person or people who are involved in the conflict
  • Take the concern up the chain of command to someone who has more influence or power than you

These are the appropriate people; not third parties or other colleagues who are not involved. But should you bring up your concerns about the tension you’re experiencing (directly or indirectly)?  

Ask yourself:

  • What is your relationship with the person you’re considering confronting? How well do you know them, what is the level of trust and rapport you’ve established, and is the relationship important and long term? The more you know someone and the more important an issue is, the more likely you should have a conversation.  
  • What is the conflict/tension about? If the tension is the result of a one-off, minor annoyance, it’s premature to bring it up and likely unnecessary. Conversely, repetitive patterns or long term issues with greater and far ranging impact are issues ripe for conversation. Issues relating to the company or your ability to do your work, speaking to your manager might make the most sense.

The goal of talking to a colleague whose tension is affecting you should be two-fold: to express your feelings while also trying to better understand what is going on with this colleague or the situation that has caused the tension.

The goal of talking to a superior is to allow the person with the appropriate authority to handle a problem, based on the knowledge or information they have about the situation. You don’t want to overstep your position, but on the other hand they may not be fully aware of what is going on.

Choose your timing wisely

In deciding to confront the conflict/tension with the appropriate person, timing is important. Think through when you will ask the person when it is a good time for them to talk, letting them know you had a concern you wanted to talk about, but want to ensure sufficient, uninterrupted time in their schedule. Then pin down a time.

If the person is going through a high-stress time, you might want to wait until later to bring it up. However, if the conflict is part of the high-stress time (say you’re working on a project with a tight deadline and the conflict is keeping things from moving forward), then the sooner the better.

Lead in softly

Just like finding the right time to talk, brainstorm how to frame the issue in a way that is not aggressive or emotional, which can cause defensiveness and shut the conversation down.

Focusing on the specific situation or problem, use factual statements, stating “I am concerned about” or “I’ve noticed recently that” or “I’ve been frustrated because.” Then share how you’ve interpreted the action or behavior, but that you want to better understand the “why” from their perspective. Being open and letting the other person describe their side, if they can or want to share, will more likely defuse defensiveness. Active listening and summarizing points in the conversation increases understanding and can better define the conflict.

If it’s appropriate to share ideas about solutions or ways to focus on the common ground, share them or suggest brainstorming with the other person; being prepared with suggestions, based on your perspective or understanding of the situation, might help improve it. Disagreement and differences don’t have to be a barrier to progress. Both can be valued, while finding common ground or common efforts to work towards.

Deal with tension your own way

If solving the tension is outside of your responsibility or just not realistic given where you work, address it with the person who can make change (your manager, team leader, etc.), then do your best to move on and let it go.

Avoid gossip, find ways to decompress and relax, and choose not to dwell on the unresolved tension that is outside of your control. Just be you and focus on being amazing in your role.

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