Resolving Workplace Conflicts

Eugene B. Kogan is no stranger to conflict. The research director of Harvard’s American Secretaries of State Project grew up during the height of the Cold War in Soviet Union (now Russia), where power of the state shaped the lives of ordinary citizens.

As an adult and naturalized American citizen, Kogan was drawn to studying influence on a large scale. He completed his PhD dissertation on the use of power to shape the nuclear choices of American Cold War allies.

“Power is something I’ve thought about my entire life,” he says, “and, if you think about it, power plays a major role in every person’s life.”

Today, Kogan focuses on the use of power in diplomacy. He seeks to elicit practical insights for how power impacts everyday relationships, including those in the workplace.

This interest led to the development of Leading Conflict Resolution in the Workplace. This new program is designed for both employees and managers.

Power is something I’ve thought about my entire life,” he says, “and, if you think about it, power plays a major role in every person’s life.

“Employees often ask themselves: ‘How can I voice my ideas in a meeting? How can I help others understand me better? How do I assert myself without coming across as aggressive?’ These are challenges most of us can relate to, and they stem from themes central to many conflicts,” says Kogan. “Managers, on the other hand, often wonder: ‘How can I encourage an open and productive exchange of ideas without giving up my authority? Some of my reports have strong opinions, but I don’t want to lose control over the decision-making process.’”

In this Q&A, Kogan explores these themes and offers advice for approaching common workplace conflicts.

What’s typically at the core of workplace disputes?

Most conflicts are exacerbated by a failure to either recognize power dynamics or to understand empathy.

When you’re at odds with someone who wields power in a conflict—be it a team leader, manager, or stakeholder—be conscious of the dynamics at play.

How can I voice my ideas in a meeting? How can I help others understand me better? How do I assert myself without coming across as aggressive?

Start by identifying the sources of authority that give them the power. Is this drawn from their position within the organization, their expertise, or some other source?

Analyze the situation to determine differences that may have led to conflict, whether these be motivations, working styles, or stakes. Then try to establish what underlying factors could have caused these differences. It could be a range of factors—perhaps a difference in career backgrounds or knowledge gaps that led to dissension. Identifying these could help unveil the root of a problem.

Educating yourself about power dynamics in this way prepares you to recognize the exercise of power, understand what’s at play, and handle the situation more effectively.

Conversely, for those in a role of power, empathy is key. What many fail to recognize is that empathy is multidimensional. It involves listening to others and making them feel like they’ve been heard. But it also means you must listen to yourself and know where your vulnerabilities and strengths are. This kind of self-awareness is important when exercising power.

The challenge is to avoid allowing empathy to be misconstrued as sympathy. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes, but have the fortitude to say, “I am here to learn about your perspective, but do not confuse this with agreement.”

This is particularly important when mediating conflicts between direct reports. People are sensitive to any sign of sympathy toward the other person.

The challenge is to avoid allowing empathy to be misconstrued as sympathy.

Empathy can also help you deal with resistance. You may not be willing or able to compromise your stance. But you can be conscientious in how you shape your message to your reports so that it doesn’t come across as overbearing. Being more power-conscious will enable you to have more productive relationships with your reports, and it will help you be more effective in your role as a manager.

What’s the first thing to do if you’re at the center of a professional conflict?

Henry Kissinger once said, “Answers cannot be better than the questions asked.” Start by asking, “What is my contribution to the conflict?” Listen to your answer.

From there, listen to the other person. Ask if you can have an active conversation and volunteer to listen generously. That’s actually the first in a series of steps I teach in the Leading Conflict Resolution in the Workplace: write, listen, brainstorm, and mediate.

Answers cannot be better than the questions asked.—Henry Kissinger

Write a quick note, suggesting a conversation. Meet and listen actively. If there’s still a lack of progress, brainstorm options to resolve the conflict. And if brainstorming doesn’t help you make progress, a manager or mediator could participate.

How can you convey generous listening?

It’s especially hard to establish in today’s work environment, but I’d argue that getting out from behind your desk when talking to your direct report is essential. I’ve had it done to me, and I’m sure you’ve faced it, too. We’ve all been there, in front of a boss who’s positioned behind a computer and talking across the table.

As a manager, you have the power and authority to choose the location of the meeting—and space shapes the body language. The office is inherently a place of power, especially if you’re in your “big boss” chair. Everyone knows you’re the boss. No need to underscore it. So pull the chair aside and be face to face with the person you’re meeting. Better yet, don’t meet in the office at all. If you really want to demonstrate your willingness to learn, consider going for a walk!

There’s a very important distinction between public and private space, and you have to consider the costs and benefits that those options create for you and your employee.

Does body language play a part in conflict resolution?

Body language can affect a person’s perception of the power dynamic and of the conflict.

In a world saturated with technology and distraction, it’s important to be attentive. Make the person feel like you’re with them—whether it’s through making eye contact, properly positioning your body, or putting your phone away so you aren’t distracted by text messages or e-mails.

Can e-mail play a positive role in conflict resolution given its complexity?

E-mail can be great in conflictual situations because it’s inherently a contractual device. You’re putting something on paper.

If you’ve had a conversation and done some active listening, e-mail is a great way to say, “Thanks for taking time from your busy schedule. I’d like to summarize what we discussed and hear your reaction if I misunderstood anything.”

Words come across differently in e-mail, and you can’t see the person’s body language and emotion. E-mails also can make it harder to think strategically because they often require an immediate response.

I’d advise against having the actual conversations over e-mail because they’re deeply prone to miscommunication. Words come across differently in e-mail, and you can’t see the person’s body language and emotion. These aspects of conversation are cloaked under the electronic medium, and I’d argue they’re necessary to resolving conflict.

E-mails also can make it harder to think strategically because they often require an immediate response.

Why did now seem like the right time to introduce this program at Harvard?

I don’t want to make this political, but people on both sides of the aisle are just not listening to one another. Our national debate is the macrocosm of the microconflicts that happen every day in the workplace. I just hope—and I will say this immodestly—that programs like mine can move the needle.

There is no human being from whom we cannot learn something, if we’re interested enough to dig deep.—Eleanor Roosevelt

We need a national conversation where people listen. I know I’ve emphasized that quite a bit, but I don’t want to leave our discussion without one last quote.

Eleanor Roosevelt wrote a book in 1960, You Learn by Living, which I’m currently reading. She writes, “There is no human being from whom we cannot learn something, if we’re interested enough to dig deep.”

There’s your empathy; there’s your listening. We need it today more than ever.

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