Three steps for navigating conflict at work

Dr. Henryk Krajewski | 2 June 2022

Begin a conversation by emphasizing your role in the conflict.

Originally featured in Forbes.

You’ve likely been in some sort of conflict at work. This could be in the form of a co-worker you openly disagree with, a member of your team you’re consistently frustrated with or a superior who treats you poorly. Whether it’s an overt conflict or simply that someone “rubs you the wrong way,” interpersonal conflict weighs heavily on us. As an advisor and a coach, I help executives confront such issues daily. My recommendations run counter to many approaches in the popular business literature and also against our first instincts. However, I can assure you the framework I suggest is rooted in the scientific principles of influence and represent actions that I’ve seen work for dozens of successful executives.

Principle No. 1: Conflict avoidance costs more than you realize.

Almost everyone hates conflict. Imagine if we weren’t so interested in social harmony—we wouldn’t get much done if we butted heads over every little thing. Sometimes we do just need to let things go. However, we often avoid conflict even after repeated episodes, even after repeated stresses. We do this because we perceive confronting the conflict as more emotionally costly than avoiding it. We’re afraid the confrontation will result in discomfort, awkwardness and even retribution. But as we all know, every time we encounter the individual(s) we conflict with—even mildly—it builds. Slowly at first, but it becomes a weight that never seems to go away over time. Many have left an organization altogether over such “day-to-day” issues that build over time. So, what should we do to avoid this? This is where we turn to the second principle.

Principle No. 2: Go first.

In my opinion, the age-old scripting of telling a co-worker (or spouse), “When you do X, it makes me feel Y” doesn’t work. This framing spotlights the other person’s errors and forces them to admit wrongdoing in the moment. This is a tall order for most human beings. Have you ever honked your horn at someone who made a wrong turn, and they honked (or gestured) back even though they were in the wrong? Humans are inherently defensive to a perceived attack, regardless of actual fault. We’re built that way to protect our ego and self-identity. So, the idea of confronting someone with something they did wrong is a flawed strategy that often results in defensiveness and reactivity.

Rather than placing the spotlight on the other person and their behavior, start by putting the spotlight on yourself. That is, begin a conversation by emphasizing your role in the conflict. And, yes, this does assume you have a role. Of course, you do. No matter how small, your behavior plays a role. When you begin by taking ownership over your part, you invoke what persuasion guru Robert Cialdini calls the most powerful law in human influence: the law of reciprocity. It states that when someone gives something to us first, we feel compelled to give something back. Beyond reciprocity, going first also creates a safe environment where your counterpart can see there is no risk in admitting mistakes. In combination, reciprocity and psychological safety predict that as you take responsibility and ownership, your counterpart will follow suit.

Principle No. 3: Define mutual actions.

Once you’ve described your part, be sure to define actions you’ll each take that can remedy the situation. The key here is to suggest your actions first and then ask the other person whether there is anything else you can do. Once again, based on reciprocity and safety, your counterpart will also feel the need to suggest actions. If they don’t, you have full license to ask them what actions they can take, or you can even suggest actions to them and ask for feedback. The virtue in mutual actions is that the focus is on the future and solutions vs. emotions and the past. It’s also an implicit contract that both can revisit to assess how it’s going. It’s a business conversation, so treat it as you would track any important business outcome.

With the above framework, you’ve both owned your actions, acknowledged the impact of those actions and suggested steps to make things better. You’ve invited your counterpart to give feedback on suggested actions and given yourself defacto permission to do the same. So, what happens when things don’t go to plan, and your counterpart doesn’t take your lead? You take the high road and try again once more at another time. Examine how radically you owned your part the first time around. If going one step further doesn’t work, you’ve done everything you can, and then you can turn to management.


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