5 golden rules for conflict resolution

Arguments at work aren't necessarily bad. It's what happens afterwards you've got to worry about.

Last Updated: 22 May 2017

Conflict is inevitable, stupid. It’s human nature. While the modern leader may want harmony and co-operation in the workplace, a few million years of evolutionary biology would beg to differ. Shove people together and set them on a task, and sooner or later there will be war.

You may hope to manage conflict, but this too may be wishful thinking. ‘Managing conflict - I have no idea what that means. It’s just not a thing to be managed. You can squash its appearance, but the only way you’re going to get rid of conflict is if you offer everyone a free frontal lobotomy,’ says mediator Michael Jacobs from CMP Resolutions. Try clearing that with HR...

It’s not always a bad thing to have arguments, in any case. It just means people have strong opinions and are willing to voice them. What matters, what has the capacity to either strengthen the bonds of trust in a team or to poison the office culture, is what happens afterwards.

1. Have a conversation (just not with a manager)

‘What’s dangerous is we form judgements about each other post-argument. We carry them around with us, they don’t have an expiration date and they shape almost every interaction we have afterwards,’ says Jacobs.

Pretending it never happened is clearly not going to prevent those judgements from disrupting your working relationship with the person in question. You need to have a conversation with them about it – just don’t be tempted to get your manager involved at this stage. They will be seen as a judge, but it will be difficult for them to remain impartial, says Jacobs.

2. Make it about you

‘These conversations begin one of two ways, either "I want to talk because you..." or "I want to talk because I...",’ says Jacobs. ‘If you begin with "I want to talk because you...", the conversation will end before it begins, because you’re making it a judgement about them and when we’re judged we all either close down or hit back.’

This may require some discipline as the conversation goes on, since you’ll probably feel that they really are to blame – but hurling accusations will not help matters.

3. Remember: There is no such thing as an unreasonable person

I know what you’re thinking, but what about Keith in accounts? But unreasonableness is really another way of saying someone else thinks differently to you – they may be wrong, they’re not being unreasonable for them.

Unfortunately, it can be very frustrating when people don’t see things the same way. It’s essential therefore to understand how they think about the situation. ‘I don’t get to speak until I’ve summarised back to what you’ve said in such a way that you sign off on it,’ says Jacobs.

4. Take a step back

Even if you’re trying meticulously to understand each other and avoid blame, there’s always potential for further antagonism when discussing a relationship problem. If you find yourself getting flustered, angry or tongue-tied, it’s perfectly reasonable to say that you’d like to reflect on what they’ve said.

‘Give it sufficient time and don’t assume it will be done in one go. You may need to come back and have other conversations – people get caught up in loops,’ says Jacobs.

5. Hold onto the nuclear option

No, this doesn’t mean keeping a small plutonium warhead under your desk ‘just in case’. The nuclear option is leaving. After all, not every conflict will end with a handshake and no hard feelings, despite your best efforts.

‘Can you live with this, without waking up at 2am with revenge fantasies playing in your head?’ Asks Jacobs. ‘I wish sometimes people would make that as a more conscious choice – you know what, I really can’t live with it, I’ve got to go someplace else.’

Next: How anger and worry can make you a better leader


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