Collaborating through Conflict

Conflict at work

When I started my career fresh out of grad school, I worked as a recruiter in a highly competitive IT consultant firm. It didn’t take long to realize that, more often than not, if a candidate failed to succeed it wasn’t because he/she lacked the technical skills necessary to complete the work. The key issue was always a soft skills gap. Communication, time management, a positive attitude, problem solving skills, etc. It was always a soft skill deficit that created conflict and resulted in having to back-fill the position.

I learned to ask all candidates to “Tell me about a time when you experienced conflict with a coworker.” Everyone has experienced conflict in the workplace at some point. Organizations are filled with individuals pursuing complimentary, yet conflicting agendas. It’s a breeding ground for potential conflict. When I asked that interview question, the conflict itself was never the important part of the answer. What I always listened for was how the individual continued to collaborate and communicate in spite of the conflict.

A disagreement can be a minor distraction or a career-altering derailer. When conflict occurs, but is never addressed openly, it will likely linger and flow from one interaction to another creating an uncomfortable and toxic culture for everyone involved.

To address and overcome conflict, everyone involved must be willing to openly discuss what transpired, where errors were made, how things could have been handled differently, and a plan to avoid such conflict in the future. That’s the ideal approach to resolving conflict.

However, in the real world, we often encounter individuals who refuse to acknowledge that conflict occurred or take ownership for his/her part in the breakdown. In those instances, the real challenge becomes how we continue to work together and collaborate in spite of the lingering conflict.

Here are a few tips for collaborating through conflict:

  • Let it go. Unless everyone is ready to openly discuss and resolve the key issues, then you’ll have to let go of your negative emotions and focus on achieving your objectives. You can’t force someone to acknowledge and resolve an issue if they don’t want to. Don’t hold yourself back by letting your emotions drag you into the past. Stay focused on your goals and let the interpersonal issues go.
  • R.E.S.P.E.C.T. Remain respectful and professional in all communication with the other party at all times. Additionally, try to identify ways that you respect the other person’s point of view. Perspective-taking can be difficult when the conflict is particularly contentious, but if you’re able to envision how the other person felt during the conflict, you might be find reasons to understand and empathize with their position.
  • Lead with the goal first. In all of your future interactions with this other person, remind yourself that you’re on the same team. You’re both working towards fulfilling your company’s mission. You both want to be successful. Before you tell the other person what you want or need, ask if they will work with you to achieve a specific goal. We often don’t disagree on the destination itself, just the steps we should take to reach the destination. Remind yourself of the things you agree on vs. the list of disagreements.

Regardless of who is at fault, when two people in an organization can’t get along, no one looks good. The professional reputation of each individual suffers and the organization fails to innovate and achieve objectives. Protect your image and career by either addressing the conflict and overcoming it, or power through and stay focused on your goals. Wading in the pool of negativity, anger, and hurt feelings is not an option.