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Article No.: 15-12, December 1, 2015

Article Title: Building Collaboration from Conflict

Author: Linda Gravett, Ph.D., SPHR, SHRM-SCP, CEQC

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You may have glanced at the title of this article and thought, "There’s no way you can end up with a happy ending if there’s conflict."

In the next few paragraphs, I’d like to share some concrete steps you can coach your employees to take to accomplish just that.  Conflict doesn’t have to be negative; it can bring out different yet valuable perspectives, minimize group think, and challenge a stale status quo.
If you work with at least one other person, there’s the potential for disagreement and miscommunication from time to time.  Since most of us spend our days with others beside ourselves, conflict is an inevitable part of life.  However, conflict can be an opportunity for ultimate agreement, not disagreement and miscommunication.
My research and consulting work over the past several years have surfaced six major sources of conflict in the workplace, stemming from:

  • Issues of possession (this is my cubicle/my lunch hour/my mentor)
  • An environment that is demotivating
  • Differing opinions and philosophies on life in general
  • Different methods, or ways of doing the work
  • Beliefs (such as “you have to pay your dues to succeed”)
  • Desire for control

These sources of conflict can emerge between groups or departments; among group members; or between individuals.  If you experience any of these situations often, you probably wonder, “Do I really want to go to work tomorrow?!”  As Human Resources professionals, we can take an active role in ensuring that unresolved conflicts don’t negatively impact employee morale.
The key to turning conflict into collaboration, I believe, is acknowledging disagreement sooner than later so that disagreement is merely frustrating or causes a few anxious moments.  This is preferable to doing nothing and letting frustration with another person or people escalate to the point where you’re intensely angry and ready to fight or flee.
We all have different responses to conflict, and the four I observe most often in the workplace are:  avoidance; rationalization; “Yes” really means “No”; and refusal to engage.  Many people will go to great lengths to avoid confronting a person if they believe the discussion might be uncomfortable.  The most typical tactic I’ve seen is to either send emails after hours or leave voice messages before work starts, hoping to avoid an actual face-to-face discussion.  Rationalization occurs when a directive comes down from the top or an immediate supervisor, and the employee tells herself that the edict applies to other people, not her.  Some people will say “Yes, that’s a good idea” to your face and then go about doing what they’ve always done instead of saying that they disagree with or don’t want to do something.  Then again, others will simply say “No, I won’t do that” without explanation and shut the door to further conversation.
Different responses to conflict call for different tactics to prevent and overcome unpleasant outcomes.
If people seem to avoid confronting or disagreeing with you, consider whether the feedback and input you provide to others is constructive or destructive.  Destructive feedback is hurtful and demotivating (i.e., yelling or using demeaning language).  In constructive feedback, you:

  • Focus on the issue at hand (instead of bringing up five transgressions from the past six months)
  • Avoid calling people “stupid” or “lazy”, or other personal and demeaning terms
  • Emphasize key points – what do you want the other person to consider or do?  Be specific and concrete so there’s no room for doubt.
  • Acknowledge the other person’s point of view – maybe it’s a good one!

If you observe that coworkers or team members try to rationalize that impending change doesn’t apply to them, I suggest you work through some phases of the change process with them, which I call the P-A-C-E of change:

P.A.C.E. Diagram

Prepare rationalizers for change by providing advance information about how and why the world around them is changing:  through staff meetings, one-on-one’s and data sharing.  Build acceptance by asking for their input and ideas on how to work through impending changes together.  Commit as a leader by establishing policies and procedures to implement change and stick to the target date for beginning the new way of doing things.  Empower execution by providing resources and encouraging rationalizers to take risks and make mistakes as they learn.
For those who respond to a request or direction by outright refusal or saying yes to your face and then proceeding as usual, it’s necessary to set consequences for not carrying out directives.  Otherwise, you enable them to go their own way without even breaking stride.  I’ve found that helping people understand the “W-I-F-M” (What’s in it for me?) that comes with a request or directive is more productive than the usual “This is for the good of the organization” explanation.
When faced with potential conflict, I urge you to consider moving to win-win right away, rather than thinking that there will be one winner and one loser in the discussion.  You can move towards win-win by focusing on common goals and objectives you both have (such as the Mission of the organization) rather than your position (I want to do this because I’ve always done it this way).  You can move towards win-win by:

  • Defining the problem you’re both trying to address
  • Disagreeing clearly and objectively; be straightforward
  • Don’t make personal attacks
  • Find shared concerns (i.e., limited budget or resources)
  • Focus on facts, not opinions


If you have any questions or need more information about this article, please complete our Contact Form, or contact Dr. Gravett by telephone at 513-753-8870.

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