How To Use Conflict To Your Advantage At Work

If you’re wasting time always trying to keep the peace, you could be missing out on an important source of energy and innovation.

Whether we like it or not, conflict is a constant in life. From big-picture decisions about the future to where to eat lunch, every day we have myriad differences of opinion with others.

While some people plow through conflict to get their way, a 2010 study by Provo, Utah-based leadership training firm VitalSmarts found that 95% of employees have trouble voicing differences of opinion, which results in a loss of roughly $1,500 per eight-hour workday in lost productivity, doing unnecessary work, and engaging in active avoidance of co-workers for every crucial conversation they avoid.

“We’re constantly faced with choices and conflicts. We work through the vast majority. The conflicts that get the most attention are the ones that go bad or go wrong,” says Peter T. Coleman, psychology and education professor at New York City’s Columbia University and author of the forthcoming Making Conflict Work: Harnessing the Power of Disagreement.

Somewhere between browbeating and caving in every time you’re faced with someone else’s preferences, there’s a middle ground out of which can spring innovation and ideas. Here are five steps to stop avoiding conflict and start managing it.

Choose the battles wisely.

First, weigh whether the conflict is important. Will the outcome matter to you? When you’re stressed or overwhelmed, it may feel like every conflict matters. Colman says it’s important to pause and consider whether it’s the person or issue that needs to be addressed or if you’re feeling tense or irritated overall and, as a result, less able to let it go. Understand what’s driving the conflict and make decisions about engaging accordingly.

Create the culture.

To foster an environment where conflict can be productive, you need to create a pattern of welcoming positive disagreement. Avoid engaging in conflicts that don’t matter just to get your way, Coleman cautions.

If you’re overly combative, your employees or co-workers aren’t going to engage in truthful discussion with you when it matters. They may just tell you what you want to hear or refuse to cooperate when you need them. When people raise issues, concerns or questions, reacting with patience and honesty is usually the best course.

“If I’m working with somebody who is a client or a staffer or employee who I really value, then I may really want to reflect on whether it makes sense, in the long run, to just keep telling them what to do or do I need to be quiet, listen, and try to hear [what they’re saying]? Do I trust them? Do I feel like I need them in the future?” Coleman says. From there, decide when and how to engage.

Work with the players.

Another important factor in managing conflict is the people involved. Are you managing conflict at work or at home? Does it include your supervisor, co-workers, or others inside or outside the company? What is the risk to you if you damage the relationship? Clearly, you’re going to manage the conflict with an unscrupulous supplier differently than you would a disagreement with your boss over a promotion.

Weigh the options.

The best environments don’t have chronic cooperators or persistent bullies, Coleman says. Instead, effective conflict resolution starts with people who can read the situation and react properly to it. Sometimes, that requires coming in strong and sometimes it requires building consensus. You need to understand your authority in the situation, as well as the potential value of the relationship, which will help determine the approach you should use.

Choose your approach.

The best way to manage a conflict depends on a matrix of these factors. For example, if you’re in a subordinate relationship with someone who is making your life miserable and doesn’t care about you, you may need to appease the other person as a stopgap until you can find another solution. In some cases, it’s best to walk away entirely.

However, if you’re dealing with people who are trying find common ground and common goals, that’s a different matter. Work on understanding why they feel the way they do. Truly listen to the other person’s point of view to see if there are areas that you don’t understand or see differently and if secondary solutions can help create consensus on the bigger issues.

Be open and work on managing your emotions--anger or frustration aren’t going to get you anywhere. Instead, model the behavior and communication you’d like to see in your counterpart, even when things get tense, and you’ll get much farther than trying to force the other person to do things your way.

“The common denominator about conflicts is they’re filled with energy. People get motivated when they’re in conflict. They feel a rush when they’re in conflict. People may get anxious and shut down or they may get anxious and get angry and confront. Or you can use that energy to sort of push through,” he says.

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[Image: Flickr user Jakub T. Jankiewicz]

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