3 Effective Strategies to Manage Workplace Conflict
Eugene B. Kogan, Ph.D., is the research director of Harvard University’s American Secretaries of State Project. He's an expert in coercive negotiations and power dynamics, and Dr. Kogan previously served as a Stanton Postdoctoral Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.
We’ve all likely encountered conflicts in the workplace that affect our morale, limit our productivity, and may even lead us to seek employment elsewhere.
There’s no way to avoid tension altogether, of course. But if you are capable of carefully navigating and resolving such discord, you’ll find you can improve dynamics for yourself and your team—and together you can deliver the results you strive for.
Let’s take a look at a common workplace conflict. A new manager has been hired to oversee special projects within your department, and you are uncertain about how roles will be redefined and responsibilities reallocated.
Open, Constructive Communication Is Key
In a situation like this, it’s natural to feel a loss of control and fear of the unknown. To avoid letting anxiety get the best of you, commit yourself to being as communicative and open as possible.
A constructive conversation with your new counterpart can help both of you adjust to the new reality and work toward common goals with less stress and more understanding.
Here are three strategies to maximize the chances of a smooth path forward.
1. Craft an Invitation to Meet
Take the initiative to connect with your new colleague. You can send an invitation by e-mail, but keep in mind that the way you formulate this message is important.
To begin, find that place of empathy within yourself. Think about how this person may be feeling. Likely he is anxious as well. After all, as a new member of the team, he is walking into a situation where people already know what they’re doing.
If you consider the feelings that language evokes in people—the emotions it evokes in you—you’ll appreciate the importance of conjuring a sense of reassurance and respect. Such opening lines may come in the shape of “I’m seeking your guidance …” or “could we discuss…” or “might it be possible for us...”
Such conversation starters suggest you have respect for your new colleague’s experience, opinion, and judgment. They offer reassurance that this is not an invitation to struggle but a genuine effort to build understanding and reach compromise.
Humanize the Message
Because e-mail can be a cold and impersonal mode of communication, think of ways to humanize the message, especially if you have yet to meet the new colleague in person. For example, you may start the e-mail by welcoming them to the team and attach a photo of the team from the holiday party.
Carefully Review Before You Send
After you have finished a draft, build in the time—ideally, an hour or two—to see it with fresh eyes and reflect. Printing out the message and reading it aloud is likely to give you a valuable perspective. You might even have a trusted mentor look it over and share observations.
2. Choose a Neutral Location
If you want to have a productive, collaborative talk, you need neutral ground. Barriers to an effective communication are often unseen, and location can physically represent those invisible obstacles.
The office, intrinsically a place of power, can be the least conducive to a fruitful conflict-management process—especially if you’re meeting in your own office or your colleague’s.
Suggest getting a coffee in the cafeteria or taking a walk outside. If you meet in an open, impartial space, you are both likely to feel more of a sense of comfort, privacy, and freedom.
3. Approach the Conversation Strategically
Consider Your Colleague's Interests and Potential Points of Alignment
Now it's time to prepare for the conversation, and again, empathy is important. You are more likely to have a constructive conversation if you first consider what your colleague’s interests and needs may be.
With these in mind, you have an opportunity to identify potential joint and divergent interests before the conversation even begins.
Next, Be Prepared to Listen—Strategically
You can open the conversation by suggesting that your colleague speak first, then you’ll take a turn.
This gives you the opportunity to search for overlaps in interests, for words, images, and vignettes that may allow you to start building bridges across seemingly high barriers. Perhaps you share an alma mater, home state, or favorite sports team. Openings can come in all forms if you are genuinely interested in discovering a common ground. By being curious about ways you can connect, you are more likely to build trust and garner respect.
In addition to seeking commonalities, be on the lookout for possible asymmetries as well. Misaligned interests can be advantageous. For example, in a workplace situation, perhaps you enjoy conceiving new projects and overseeing the discovery phase, whereas your colleague thrives on managing the project execution. Be mindful of such opportunities to divide tasks, and you can work together for mutual benefit.
When it’s your turn in the conversation, you can find ways to share your perspective while also bridging the gaps. Of course, none of these approaches are easy—especially in emotionally charged situations. They also take time: conflict-management is a process, not an event.
But if you employ these strategies with sincerity, you can transcend the immediate tension and move the relationship toward a more productive stage.