Dealing With Conflicts At Work

Don’t let subtle misunderstandings wreak havoc on your company.

Workplace conflict—the rare misfortune of those dealing with diva CEOs and scheming colleagues, right? Wrong.

“It’s extremely common,” says Liz Carey, co-founder of Tarrytown-based Emerge, a leadership-coaching and team-development consulting firm, “but not commonly addressed”—which means a huge number of firms letting dissatisfaction, productivity lags, and unwanted turnover go unaddressed.

Carey, who’s worked with companies like Heineken USA and Pernod Ricard, says that we tend to think of conflict as a once-a-year-at-most, screaming-in-the-cubicles phenomenon. But the kinds of subtle misunderstandings that arise every day at every company are also a big problem in the long run. And since misunderstandings can happen at every level, it’s the responsibility of everybody—from the CEO down to the intern—to know how it starts and how to deal with it.

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Conflict can start with something as simple as an employee who is not invited to a meeting that touches on his or her responsibilities and doesn’t know why. “That’s the key thing: There’s a gap in information,” says Carey, “and that gap is almost always filled in with a negative storyline—‘You’re trying to push to get more of my responsibilities.’ It’s sort of the rare and exceptional person who says, ‘Oh, I’m sure there’s a good reason.’”

Those negative storylines proliferate, and “a whole slew of other conflicts can then ensue,” which will undoubtedly affect happiness and productivity. “Eventually, [conflict-burdened staff] will leave and take all their institutional knowledge with them, and that costs time and money,” Carey adds.

So how do you deal with conflict? Don’t gossip, don’t retaliate, and don’t stew, Carey advises. If the problem is small, let it go, reminding yourself that the allegedly offensive person has responsibilities, lapses, worries, goals, and outside-work circumstances you don’t know about. If it’s big, have a calm, open-minded conversation.

“They might tell you, ‘I knew you were really busy, so I thought I could handle this [meeting],’” Carey points out. So, it could turn out that the person you thought was moving in on your territory was actually trying to be helpful; constantly conniving employees aren’t that common, Carey says, noting, “People are too busy for that.” 

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