David Wray

CommunicationConflict ResolutionCourageDifficult PeopleEngaged EmployeesOvercome ChallengesToxic workplaces

Resolving Underlying Conflicts with a Colleague

Dilbert cartoon strip for resolving underlying conflicts in the workplace.

How do underlying workplace conflicts arise?

Dilbert can bring out a range of reactions to the comic strip’s ways of resolving underlying conflicts. As humorous as Dilbert can be, the underlying theme of the cartoon is very real for many. The most common forms of underlying conflict are surprisingly subtle and might include things like a curt or defensive email, or a usually talkative individual being brief and matter of fact, or an average conversation “suddenly” becoming awkward. These cues often mask an underlying conflict “screaming” for resolution. The conflict too often remains unresolved when neither individual involved initiates a discussion.

These common workplace conflicts typically arise for one of two reasons:

  1. A misunderstanding that has taken on a life of its own, or
  2. A series of assumptions made that were based on perception rather than fact

The good news is these underlying issues are solvable more easily than you might imagine.

A typical underlying conflict example

Sam is returning to the team after a 4-month special project assignment. She returns to her team leadership role but somehow something has changed. Sam senses a different dynamic within the team towards her. What was routine is now being challenged, what was casual somehow feels tense and what was easy now seems difficult. Sam narrows the tension down to two individuals, Steven and Tracy. They regularly challenge what they see as Sam’s micromanagement, after four months of easy file reviews by her replacement. Sam is trying to be patient but finds herself becoming less and less so. Emails and instant messages are curt and defensive or, in some cases passive-aggressive. Sam instinctively knows there is a problem but doesn’t know how to address it, so she tiptoes around the issue. Team tensions are rising and spreading, you are called in to help the team.

Where do you start?

Getting to the root cause of underlying conflicts

Problem resolution starts with identifying what the problem actually is, in other words, the root cause. That sounds easy but can be tricky as the problem may be masked by symptoms. It is akin to the challenge doctors face when trying to diagnose an illness.

You quickly learn through talking to Sam that the issue started with a series of perceptions that have taken on a life of their own. You realize this fact when she explains what is happening. Through your discussion together you recognize familiar patterns and behaviours:

  • Inferred meaning is being attached to words used in emails.
  • Assumptions emerge about how hard Steven or Tracy is working, based on their online status.
  • Rising doubts within Sam about how the team feels about her.
  • And the list goes on…

The pattern needs a reset, so how can it be done?

Resolving underlying conflicts 

Adapting our own frame of mind first

Conflict resolution starts with one person realizing the need to change and initiating resolution. In the context of workplaces, it’s about rebuilding bridges (damaged during a conflict)

Rebuilding bridges as a step for resolving underlying conflicts in the workplace.

When facing up to a workplace conflict, it’s important to recognize from the outset that we are part of the problem ourselves. Whether that is in creation, perpetuating, or failing to end the conflict – we are, at least partially, responsible. 

Accepting this fact places us in a position of control, control over whether it continues, and control over when it ends. In coaching, I use the analogy of moving from a passenger seat to a driver’s seat at this moment. This realization opens the mind to learning, reflecting, adapting, and changing – all attributes found in empathy and conflict resolution.

Conflict resolution starts with good communication. The 4Rs of communication is an effective place to start:

  • Respect
  • Recognition
  • Responsibility
  • Reassurance

With this framework, applied to both the other person and equally important to us, we are ready to tackle the difficult conversation.

Tackling the difficult conversation

Conversations initiated for resolving underlying conflicts should be approached with an open mind, meaning:

  1. Lose any preconceived notions: ask the other person what they are thinking, what they mean, or what they need (avoid “feeling” questions initially as it is too personal too quickly). Go in with an open and curious mindset, one seeking to understand.
  2. Be brave: solving conflict requires courageous personal leadership. This is not the time to be walking on eggshells, it requires clarity of purpose and empathy to resolve conflicts.
  3. Explain what you’re observing in a neutral way: an effective tool to do this is using the SBI feedback approach. Be dispassionate, factual (no opinions), and own the impact yourself.
  4. Ask how to improve the situation: working as equals promotes more goodwill and a willingness to solve issues. Imbalances in status (i.e.: “you should do x or y to solve this issue”) only serve to prolong the underlying conflict. Conflict resolution depends on a level playing field.
  5. Check-in regularly: underlying conflicts usually require a number of conversations overtime to resolve, depending on the extent of the issue(s). Through patience, persistence, and empathy, it dissipates.

Applying this framework to Sam uncovers the root cause. Her team enjoyed more freedom during her special project assignment and can’t understand why it cannot continue. Through dialogue and linking the need for reviews with helping the company meet its governance responsibilities and manage its risk better, the team accepts its importance. Tension naturally goes down, more casual conversations return, and feedback has become the team norm. Sam’s simple decision to address the issue results in renewed communication that improves the team dynamic for the better. 

Your turn

Sign in to the Community Member Area or comment below to share your views on resolving team conflicts. How does your team manage periodic conflict? Has the pandemic changed that?

Give it a try!

Credits: Dilbert – Scott Adams, Bridge Building – Frits Ahlefeldt

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