#SXSW – Smart Fights: Say What You Really Think at Work

We’ve all had conflicts at work. Whether it’s between you and your manager, or you and your coworkers, conflicts are a natural experience in the workplace. According to Amy Gallo, contributing editor for the Harvard Business Review, we should praise conflict.

In her SXSW session: Smart Fights: Say What You Really Think at Work, Gallo took a deep dive into all things conflict, and took us through frameworks for hacking productive conflicts.

Her first piece of advice: “It’s not your job to agree with everyone around you.”

When you’re too agreeable at work, not only will you avoid conflicts, but you will fail to develop real relationships with your coworkers and peers. Though it goes against what we’re taught while growing up, conflicts are actually a good thing because when done right they lead us to have productive conversations and work through our discomfort.

No Such Thing as a Conflict Free Team

On average, we spend 2.8 hours a week dealing with conflict at work. Conflict is almost impossible to avoid, but it can often be counterproductive for individuals and teams for a number of reasons. In fact, 27% of employees have seen conflict morph into a personal attack, and 25% of employes have said that they’ve taken sick days to avoid conflicts at work.

Why Do Conflicts Arise?

In our modern work culture, we’re trained to think that the phrase “I disagree” means “you’re an idiot”. This misunderstanding leads to a lot of confusion and misperception, which ultimately causes conflicts to escalate quickly.

In reality, we just need to focus on more clear communication in order to better understand each other.

How do we Improve Teams?

Numerous studies have shown us that diverse teams outperform homogeneous teams, so we know that hiring more diverse candidates can improve team performance outcomes, but what do we do about conflicts?

Unfortunately, 56% of teams receive no training or advice on how to deal with workplace conflict. The easy answer is to simply train more teams on conflict resolution, but where do we start?

There are two types of conflict styles: conflict avoiders, and conflict seekers.

First, it’s important to understand what style of conflict you and your team fall into. There are two types: conflict avoiders, and conflict seekers.

Avoiders want to preserve relationships, so they avoid conflict at all costs, whereas conflict seekers are drawn to conflicts because they value directness and honesty.

By determining which types of people you have on your team, you will be able to better work through conflicts that arise. It’s also relevant to consider what leads people to fall into one style over the other. Past experiences and personal preference play a big role in how people deal with conflict, but gender, team style, and culture norms also shape employee conflict styles.

Step 1 to Resolution: Analyzing the Conflict

To reach a resolution, you’ll first need to analyze what type of conflict you’re facing. Here’s how to start:

Part I: Understand the Other Person

Do your best to understand the other person and try to have a generous interpretation of their side. Maybe they are having a tough time with their boss, or struggling in other areas of life, so you should consider outside factors that are causing the conflict in order to open your mind and gain perspective.

Part II: Identity the Type of Conflict

After understanding the other person, you need to identify the type of conflict you’re facing. There are 4 distinct types of conflict: Relationship, Task (disagreement over the what), Process (disagreement over the how), and Status (disagreement over who gets to make the call). It’s important to remember that conflicts rarely fall into just one category, so do your best to thread everything together to have a better understanding of the situation.

Part III: Determine Your Goal

If your goal is to be right and prove the other person wrong, you need a different goal. Try to think about what is it that you want? (on time project, under budget, etc.) and then pick a primary goal. You get bonus points if you find a goal that the other person cares about!

Part IV: Pick Your Resolution Option

You have a few options for handling it. First is: Do nothing (cannot be a default, has to fit the situation). Second option: Address it indirectly. Third option: Address directly (sit down and hash it out). Last and least popular option: Exit the relationship (last resort option).

Final Tips for Productive Conflicts

The first thing you should do with someone you’re in a conflict with is agree that you are going to disagree.

Start with: “I’m guessing we’re gonna disagree at some point, how do you think we should deal with it when it comes up?” This helps clear the air and sets expectations for what will happen.

You should also establish norms and shared vocabulary so that each person is comfortable communicating their needs and thoughts.

Finally, hold your opinion lightly. If you go into a conflict demonstrating that you are willing to change your mind, the odds of a successful resolution are much higher and you will walk away with preserved relationships.

What can Managers do to Address Work Conflicts?

First, take note that 54% of employees say managers need to identify tensions before things go wrong, 40% say managers should provide clarity over what’s expected during conflicts and act as mediators, only 39% of managers model the right behaviors, and only 29% of managers dont let ego get in the way of resolving conflicts.

Here’s what Amy Gallo thinks managers should do:

Hire for debate – ask in interviews how people handle conflict , also ask about conflicts during reference checks.
Create psychological safety. Doing this ensures employees will be more willing to take risks. Her number one tip for doing this: always use the phrase: “Thank you for raising that.”
Model ease and comfort

If you’re a manager, create conflict to create good work on your team!