Conflict in the Workplace

Signifying conflict in the workplace, cutting through "conflict" using a yellow-handed pair of scissors

Conflict happens all the time and especially in the workplace. The best approach for dealing with conflict in the workplace is to identify what is happening and to use assumptions that are being made as a focus for the conflict resolution.

For the purpose of this first post, I will provide an example from when I was a university administrator and one workplace-related conflict situation but will stress that I have over 30 years in the university system—half of which has been in administrative roles and myriad conflict situations.

Conflict situation. A conflict arose between one instructor whom I supervised and one university student in his class. The instructor had had several informal complaints concerning his overt comments about sex and his microaggressions such as eye rolling or sighing at students’ comments; the student was the representative for her cohort and spoke her mind when she saw any perceived injustices.

I have chosen this one example as my first post for three reasons. First, the situation was serious enough that it had to be handled quickly before it escalated and involved more students than the one highlighted given that, like most IGen learners, our students know how to use social media to make a point which could have been problematic for a university that is challenged with retention of students. Second, it represented an example Karpman’s “Drama Triangle” in that each of the two was serving as Victim, Hero, or Villain. Last, both parties trusted me to be represent fairly the interests of each which is foundational in Lencioni’s (2012) “Trust Pyramid” of behavioural principles and Covey’s (2006) Five Waves of Trust (i.e., relationship trust [No Tax/No Dividend], in particular).

Impact of Conflict on the Group. The impact on the group if the conflict was not addressed would have been high since other students had already complained informally about the instructor and were, in my opinion at the time, aware that she was talking to me about the instructor’s behaviour and therefore were expecting some feedback and, eventually, a resolution. In particular, there was clear interdependency between the group and the instructor in that they all needed each other to act cooperatively or the learning process would be interrupted; the number of interested parties was two at this level but the hidden number was about 20 students; the student certainly represented the constituent since she was the class representative and the instructor possessed some degree of constituent representation since he was a member of the Faculty and any student conflict affects the group given the small size of the School; as indicated, the two gave me negotiator authority and I ensured that the student and faculty member had made their respective parties that information; the critical urgency was apparent since the group of students had already made their opinions known to me and my supervisor and the instructor wanted a resolution in the interest of perceived harmony in the courses he taught them; and, last, the student and instructor had clear communication channels since they were able to discuss the conflict face to face in the same room (Dana, 2001).

Key Conflict Issues. There were three key issues to resolve. First, the instructor had told a graphic story, unrelated to the course content, about his personal life. Second, the behaviour was not addressed after repeated attempts to inform the instructor that stories like that one and his aforementioned microaggressions: repeated negative behaviour. Last, the instructor’s excusing repeatedly his behaviour “as a joke” or his authoritarian approach by telling the students “to get over it”: past history and use of power (Moore, 2003).

Conflict Strategy. I believe in Blanchard’s (2018) argument that leaders must “remember [to] use different strokes for different folks and also different strokes for the same folks, depending on the goal and the person’s development level” (p. 12). I have a Collaborating/Cooperating conflict style but I also understood that the idea of Intent—Act—Impact came into this scenario as the instructor argued that he was trying to be funny (intent) when the students became upset at his humour (act) and they came to me to complain (impact); the students felt that he was inappropriate and passive-aggressive (intent) despite their showing their reaction in words and deeds (act) which resulted in their shutting down in their learning (impact).

As part of my strategy, I wanted them to be satisfied to the greatest degree possible so we initially discussed the “Drama Triangle” and each shared where he or she was in the triangle at the initial meeting and were reminded to keep a mental picture of that triangle. We then moved on to the Intent—Act—Impact triad and had each share to the other how he or she characterized the three parts. These two methods allowed each to have some degree of empathy and opened communications so that we could move along the resolution with that commonality in mind. This use of awareness, readiness, understanding, and reflection allowed the three of us to discuss beliefs, attitudes, values, perceptions, and feelings as we approached the issues with that opening in mind, then moved on to identifying (and agreeing upon) the three issues (poor communication or miscommunication; repeated negative behaviour; past history and use of power), followed by exploring each issue with a specific interest in maintaining position and not interest and remembering the two key concepts above where emotion might overshadow reason, and then we came to a closure where each party agreed to take action.

In the end and after three meetings, the instructor ensured that he stayed on topic or identified a humorous anecdote as such (as long as it was not offensive as measured by the group) and the student indicated that she would share the main points (without violating confidentiality) with the group and would raise any offences with the instructor as soon as possible or would raise her index finger when he was getting to be offensive or using his power over the students.