Turn Off the Burner: Conflict Resolution for What Steams You

May 3, 2021
  • Professional Well-Being
  • core competencies
  • field notes
  • Professional Development
Conflict Management

Authored By Paula C. Maynard, Registrar, Penn State Harrisburg and Kathleen Clark, Associate Registrar, Messiah University.

Let’s face it - some workplace behaviors are difficult to manage, and we’re often confronted with them. Every institution of higher learning, department, or team is faced with conflict, where misunderstanding, miscommunication, disagreements, and irritations inevitably arise. Whether the clash is blatant and overt, or festers behind the scenes, it is destructive to our work environments. If these inescapable tensions are not addressed effectively, conflict boils over. Avoiding, minimizing, or eliminating the conflict is not only impossible but also undesirable. Conflict can, and often does, serve a useful purpose. 

The essential nature of conflict for organizational change gives voice to diversity in perspective, ingenuity in thought, and improvement in process. Your team can profit from an opportunity to think outside the box, explore new possibilities, and learn from one another. Discord essentially serves as a platform for organizations and teams to flourish and evolve which creates occasions for personal and professional growth. The reframing process starts by acknowledging conflict when it erupts, addressing it constructively, and leveraging it as a catalyst for change. As an impetus to this process, we must first understand our unique conflict management style. Let’s take a closer look at five approaches frequently identified as ways in which we handle conflict: 

Accommodation is the most passive response, where an individual relinquishes their opinion, ideas, or needs in favor of another person’s opinion. However, when used often, the underlying problem is not permanently solved, all sides lose credibility, and some consistently bear the burden of concession. 

Avoidance causes a conflict to perpetually occur and the problem to be ignored. It is best used when the issue is trivial to all parties or the concern truly self-resolves. Avoidance, however, does not address the pressing matter at hand and renders the concerns nullified by one or more of the parties. This inaction may lead to feelings of frustration or resentment. 

Compromise requires contributors to make a concession and come to a “middle ground.” When an urgent decision needs to be made quickly among “equals,” accommodation may resolve the situation effectively. Remember though, compromise promotes the loss of something, which if used frequently, may create cynicism and lack of trust. 

Competition encourages the firmest stance to win, where one side overlooks the desires of the other to fulfill their agenda. Competition can be beneficial when a decision needs to be made quickly, or when unfavorable decisions require compliance. However, a forced agreement may be perceived as unnecessarily aggressive and coercive. This style may hinder buy-in or cooperation and causes some individuals to be voiceless. 

Collaboration invites team members to work together for a common purpose by harnessing the best of all sides to find a solution. This teamwork fosters innovation, inclusivity of people, positions and gifts, and diversity of viewpoints. Although collaboration can be challenging to employ in an urgent situation, the positive effects are broad because you and your institution also benefit from the development, innovation, efficiency, and cohesiveness that collaboration fosters. 

Let’s explore two case studies to illustrate conflict management styles. Watch this excerpt from Parks and Recreation and consider which conflict style is at play: You’ll see Tom identifies with a painting in the office as an “emotional piece of art,” while his coworker, April, says that “any kid could do that.”  While other coworkers do not understand his appreciation of this artwork, his supervisor Leslie explains, “[h]e likes the shapes, and he’s part of the team.” Leslie then demonstrates compromise when she suggests everyone should “take these scissors and cut out your favorite shapes and then we’ll put them on a new team mural. We are going to make a new design that takes the best parts of all our designs.” As noted above, compromise includes loss. In this case, Leslie suggests a solution without understanding the underlying issue and no one is satisfied with the outcome. Her compromise may in turn cause her employees to lose respect and trust for her because she made a unilateral decision without considering other thoughts or needs.

Next, watch this scene from The Office: In this case study, Jim discovers Ryan playing video games on company time rather than doing his work.  Jim identifies the problem as “[y]ou’re just too distracted.”  When Ryan agrees, Jim says that he “has come up with something that is really going to help.” Jim gets the attention of the other employees and tells Ryan that “this is really going to help you pay attention and not be bothered.”  He opens the door to Ryan’s new office which is a small utility closet outfitted with a desk, chair, and computer.  Jim’s conflict management style is a type of passive-aggressive avoidance. He routinely pranks his coworkers to avoid dealing directly with the underlying issue, while the conflict continues to fester and remains unresolved. Frustration then mounts, resentment spills over, which in turn feeds the conflict.

Many professional development resources assert collaboration as the most effective strategy in conflict resolution because it increases organizational success by channeling the best in others and engaging them toward a common goal. Collaboration brings many strengths to a situation - each asset enhances the final product by serving a distinct purpose. Healthy collaboration also levels the playing field by offering team members equal opportunities to participate and communicate ideas, which in turn supports diversity in desired outcomes and produces synergy within the group. An aligned, collaborative team is then positioned with the best likelihood for success in an ever-evolving higher education landscape. 

By now you may be thinking, “This all sounds well and good, but how do I accomplish this?” Common elements within a collaborative team include active listening, assessing the situation, identifying resolutions, communicating, and time. To reach a collaborative solution, first lay some ground rules to create a safe environment that promotes respect and equity. Next, identify the facts of the situation. Then recognize and understand each person’s interests on the issue, as the discovery gets to the core of their internal needs and motivations justifying their position. Finally, motivate people to shift their focus from positions to interests by asking questions such as “why do you want this” or “what caused you to come to this conclusion” or “what problem are we trying to solve?”  The answers to these questions help to discern the issue to be solved, define how they may benefit the situation, and remove the personal idiosyncrasies that may be embedded in the conflict. This process shifts attention from the personalities at play, diffuses the heat of the conflict, and transfers the focus to solutions. 

Experiencing conflict within the workplace is no secret or rare event. Our response can escalate the situation, foster an adverse work environment, or cultivate a culture of effective problem-solving.  Remember, collaborative words and actions in uncomfortable situations reframe the tension and set the stage for friction to promote progress and productive outcomes. Managing the heat and steam of tension allows you to turn off the burner and create an environment in which your team can succeed.

Take the Conflict Management Style Self-Assessment.