Photo of two employees smiling and talking

Redefining Conflict: A Fresh Perspective for Workplace Harmony

Working Relationships
Written by Carol Bowser

Conflict – it’s a word that often elicits mixed feelings and reactions. Some say it’s a good thing, a catalyst for change and growth, while others find it disingenuous and unsatisfying. Personally, I lean towards the latter. Let me explain why.

When people talk about conflict, they’re usually referring to a sense of dissatisfaction, power struggles, and the feeling of not being heard. It’s synonymous with tension, stress, helplessness, and hopelessness. All of these negative connotations make it challenging to view conflict in a positive light.

Instead of framing competing ideas or the reactions to competing ideas as conflict, I prefer to think of it as a symptom of something more profound. Conflict arises when there’s an underlying issue that needs addressing. It’s like a warning light on your car’s dashboard, telling you that something important requires attention. By shifting our perspective from conflict to “important conversations” or “tension,” we can reframe the situation in a more constructive way.

But let’s face it – most people don’t like conflict. In fact, they’ll do almost anything to avoid it. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), when faced with tension, conflict, or the fear of harassment or discrimination, the majority of individuals resort to one of four responses:

  1. Avoidance: Around 35% to 75% of people will steer clear of the situation or the person causing the conflict.
  2. Minimization: Approximately 55% to 75% of individuals tend to downplay or minimize the issue, responding with a casual “everything’s fine” when, in reality, it’s not.
  3. Ignoring or Underplaying: About 44% to 70% of people either ignore the person or the situation altogether or downplay its significance.
  4. Endurance: Many individuals endure significant pain and discomfort before coming forward, and some never do.

Amazingly, 50% to 70% of those experiencing conflict choose not to address it directly with the person involved or their supervisor. Instead, they confide in family and friends. This is despite every employee handbook in the United States urging individuals to speak directly to the person causing the conflict or their supervisor.

The underlying concern for most people is the fear of retaliation. It might be an unfounded fear, but it’s still a powerful deterrent. So, they resort to talking to loved ones, which rarely resolves the issue or alleviates their pain.

To address these challenges, I work with leaders, teams, and individuals to enhance their situational awareness. Are there conflicts brewing beneath the surface that you’re unaware of? What tools can we employ to make individuals feel safer when expressing their concerns? These questions are vital for fostering a healthy work environment.

Even organizations that claim to have a stellar work culture and low conflict rates can benefit from this approach. I often hear, “We’re one of the top 10 Places to Work,” or “We get the Best Places to Work award all the time.” While this is great, it’s essential to recognize that conflict can still exist beneath the surface.

I’m always eager to help organizations with professional development and compliance training, particularly in areas related to harassment, discrimination, and retaliation. These topics may seem unrelated to workplace conflict, but they’re essential components of creating a culture where employees feel confident in addressing uncomfortable or difficult conversations.

I often tell clients that they may become trusted advisers to others in their lifetime, someone who imparts wisdom and guidance to those with less experience or working in different organizations. When that time comes, having the tools, tips, and techniques to foster open and productive conversations can make all the difference.

So, let’s move beyond venting, complaining, and gossiping. Let’s equip ourselves and others with the skills to address issues head-on, creating workplaces where conflicts are seen as opportunities for growth and positive change.