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How to Manage Disagreements and Conflict at Work

Learning & Development 9th November 2023

manage disagreements - workplace conflictAfter 30 years of studying conflict and conflict resolution, the world has never been a more worrying place than now, Prof Randall Peterson at London Business School has said.

Because “we seem to have lost the ability to disagree constructively and work together despite our differences” (Financial Times, ‘How to resolve conflict in a social media age when everything is being questioned’). From long-running conflicts between nation states to differences of opinion on Facebook — we seem to be less well equipped to cope.

We have a culture where a number of factors add to a chaos of views and perspectives, where none seem to have any more value than any other. The dominance of social media, of easy, virtual debate in forums stripped of ‘old-fashioned’ rules of behaviour; the erosion of trust in institutions of any kinds, in politics, business, religion; a culture where everyone is entitled to opinions, but where people might also struggle with the idea they are wrong.

This kind of culture spills over into the workplace, where organisational leaders and managers can no longer just rely on the authority that comes with a job title. Their plans and behaviours are going to be questioned, and when things go wrong, the tone of the response can sometimes be more ‘shrieking’.

Constructive Disagreement is Healthy

Challenging norms and conventions and having the chance to express ideas is all part of a healthy work environment. Disagreement is good, it’s important for learning, for improving an organisation’s performance, for bringing about innovation. But we don’t always have the skills to make sure our conversations — whether they’re online or face-to-face — stay constructive, thoughtful, empathetic, grown-up.

Too often the only thing holding back employees from open conflict is fear of embarrassment, of the implications for their livelihood and their place in the games of office politics. Relying on traditional forms of restraint and deference to authority is no longer an option.

Organisations need to be pro-active in building up their own culture of good conversations and have the skills needed to make it happen.

That starts with being conscious of the need for more ‘Conversational Integrity’ among all staff, of encouraging good and open conversations, what this involves, and being clear about how your organisation helps this to happen.

Create more conversations

Conversations only improve through being a natural and regular part of working lives, not as an event – being summoned to a meeting, or into a weekly team slot. Frequent, open and trusting conversations need to be part of the culture, encouraged and supported through making time. Make sure there are consistent messages about expectations of staff in terms of the value of having open conversations.

Get leaders and managers to set an example

People in groups mimic the behaviour of other people. If bosses are tight-lipped and looking only to protect their position, their reports will do the same. So managers need to make sure, for example, that if there’s a problem, they shouldn’t just make it about the staff. It’s usually very easy to see how the other person has contributed to the current difficulties – something they said, or something they did. Harder to spot is our own role. Once we give up the belief that the other person is completely responsible, we can start to see how we’ve added to the confusion and miscommunication.

Help people face up to difficult conversations

Too often senior staff believe their experience means they already know the answers, that they are inherently independent. Instead, having better conversations is all based on listening skills, curiosity and empathy.

Find ways to balance digital with face-to-face

The reliance on digital conversations, video calls and messaging means fundamental differences. Digital conversations can be more superficial. Instant but lacking the face-to-face ingredients that encourage rapport, active listening and empathy — like body language and signals of mood. With quick, functional exchanges via digital platforms there are greater chances of miscommunication and misinterpretations. Nuance and subtlety can be lost. Evidence suggests people find video calls draining (from the extra effort demanded for listening and creating a connection) and now the novelty has gone that means conversations that are shorter, more mechanical.

And at the same time, when there’s a problem, there should be a toolkit of options to ensure the conversations keep happening in a mature, intelligent way: via mediation when it’s needed, through neutral assessments or investigations.

This kind of ‘Clear Air’ culture means the potential for developing a kind of professional enclave inside the organisation (and among suppliers and partners) that’s an ongoing source of competitive advantage — a high-performing environment, a place of trust — however fractious and unreliable the wider world of social media becomes.

Photo by SHVETS production