Conflict in the workplace is practically inevitable. People grouped together in close quarters, day in and day out, are bound to disagree at some point or another. Whether you’re looking for it or not, the conflict will find you in the workplace. Since encountering conflict in the office is inevitable, knowing how to handle it is crucial for our career success. Handling conflict in a professional and effective manner is a key leadership trait and one that can help HR professionals deal with difficult situations among employees.
The first thing to look out for is the different styles of handling conflict. As inevitable as it is, not everyone handles conflict the same way. Some shy away from it all together, never speaking up, to their detriment and their team’s. Some are way too aggressive and seem to find (and even create) conflict everywhere they turn. Knowing how to identify the way an employee handles conflict can go a long way to helping them work through it.
Here are the four main conflict-handling styles:
Aggressive. These employees are always trying to one-up their colleagues. They seem to constantly find themselves in conflictual situations, almost as if they sought them out. To them, conflict is about winning or losing, and they don’t like to lose, so it’s likely they will continue to unnecessarily escalate the conflict until they feel they’ve won. Sometimes it’s necessary to address conflict in an aggressive manner—like when you have to enforce an unpopular decision made by the senior staff—but for the most part, this conflict-handling style ends up alienating people and complicates the conflict’s resolution.
If you’re dealing with an employee who you know has an aggressive conflict-handling style, then you can be prepared to talk it out with him and explain that he can’t always get his way.
Evasive. On the other side of the conflict-handling style spectrum is the evasive type. These employees avoid conflict at all cost. They fear confrontation, so they stay out of the way and keep their heads in the sand. At a glance, this style may seem sound—after all, avoiding conflict sounds like a good idea—but in reality, this is one of the hardest styles to deal with. Employees who always avoid conflict can come off as not caring about the issue enough to engage, which can inadvertently extend or even escalate the conflict.
If you’re confronted with an employee that avoids conflict all the time, try to explain why this behavior is unproductive and can even be harmful to both their morale and their careers. Coach them so they learn to stand up for themselves and understand that a little workplace conflict is not necessarily a bad thing.
Passive. Employees who are passive when it comes to conflict try to please others in order to dissipate disagreements. They don’t seek conflict or try to avoid it, but simply try to smooth things over quickly by setting aside their own opinions and needs, acting complacent, or even acting as martyrs in doing so. The main downside to this approach is that conflict may be resolved but only momentarily or with an inadequate solution because the person is just trying to sweep the conflict under the rug instead of dealing with it head on.
The important thing here is to help them understand that sacrificing their needs and wishes in order to dissipate conflict more quickly can actually make things worse. Their opinions matter and if it means actively dealing with conflict, even if it takes longer to reach a solution, this is better than compromising their views every time.
Cooperative. This conflict-handling style is characterized by wanting to come to a mutually beneficial solution by getting to the root of the problem. These employees are willing to compromise and set aside their emotions to reach an agreeable strategy. They don’t hide from the conflict or try too hard to get their way. In this sense, this style is a productive and effective way to handle conflict, yet it’s not completely devoid of downsides. If employees are going back-and-forth too much, it could lead to time lost trying to find a solution everyone likes. It can also unintentionally lead to some employees always giving in to the others’ needs.
Keep an eye on employees with a cooperative conflict-handling style to make sure they’re not aggravating the situation by going in circles and never arriving at a solution. Step in if you feel you can help persuade them to agree to a compromise more quickly while still maintaining their views.
Knowing the different types of conflict handling is the first step to knowing how to approach each situation. Have you had to deal with any of these styles before?