The When and How of Conflict: Managing unexpected issues and change Written by Justin Deonarine, I/O Psychologist Prior to the onset of the current pandemic, we collected data about when workplace conflict occurs, as well as how individuals most commonly handle conflict. While the results shed light on how conflict in the workplace can arise naturally, it’s even more relevant given the unexpected changes and uncertainty that exists in our world today. Conflict has the highest chance of occurring during times of ambiguity, uncertainty and change. The stress introduced by dealing with unexpected issues and implementing changes can drive conflict, especially when there isn’t a chance to pause and evaluate the best course of action. While an immediate reaction to the arising situation feels necessary, it can lead to individuals pursuing approaches and solutions that do not align, resulting in greater levels of conflict. When we asked respondents about the behaviors that they see from those dealing with conflict, avoiding was the most common response. The value in this approach is in the short-term: Avoiding can be used effectively to diffuse a tense situation. However, it’s not a long-term solution, as continuously avoiding conflict means that the initial concerns are never addressed. Competing and accommodating are complimentary to each other. When competing, an individual will look to resolve the conflict in a way where they get what they think is best. On the other hand, an accommodating style will look to concede to what the other party wants. These approaches can be useful under more complex scenarios where time is a factor and a short-term resolution is required to move forward. This could be why it is observed more frequently in the workplace: The conflict is preventing progress, so eventually someone concedes to allow everyone to move forward. Collaborating is the most effective approach for long-term conflict resolution, as it focuses on finding win-win solutions. However, this approach takes time to establish and requires the identification of underlying concerns, so those involved in the conflict have to be willing to communicate. When emotions are high, individuals may not be willing to communicate effectively, so this is where delaying the discussion can help alleviate some of these tensions. If the issue is important, this is the ideal approach. Compromising is a middle-of-the-road solution, where everyone gets something that they want, but not everything. This makes it useful when there isn’t enough time to find a win-win solution. However, it still requires a degree of trust and negotiation to implement effectively, so it may not always be the most efficient solution to establish (especially when a timely decision is required). Considerations when navigating workplace conflict (in the current climate or otherwise) While navigating conflict, evaluate the following three factors and choose your approach accordingly: How important is this issue? What’s at stake for both parties? How quickly do we need to make a decision? Do we have the time to discuss ideal solutions, or do we need to move forward? What are the priorities? Do we need to focus on the relationship, our goals or both? As we work our way towards recovery, conflict will happen. Resolving conflict isn’t an impossible task, even though it may look like one. Using the right approach for the situation (guided by the information above) will help you navigate your way through challenges and maintain your relationships with others.