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Handling Conflicts

Articles of Handling Conflicts

Last November, Philippe, a 33-year-old French banker, left Paris for a new challenge in London. He thought that a new job in a fast-growing British investment bank would give him valuable international experience and develop some new skills. The bigger salary and bonus were also a draw.

One year on, Philippe has a different view of his move. When I met him last week, he explained that the year had been a disaster and his job was in danger as staff had made formal complaints about his management style. He had found it difficult to adjust to his new role, but he had not realised that his style had created such conflict within his team.

Philippe felt he had been acting appropriately, but his colleagues and team members felt he had been inconsistent, favouring some members of his team and undermining others. His line manager had recommended coaching to help him improve his communication skills, understand the culture and develop his people skills. Philippe had agreed to the coaching but felt aggrieved that the bank had not done more to prepare him for his role with training and a proper induction. The main problem, he said, was the bank’s matrix structure and its focus on profit-making, which encouraged managers to fight for territory and resources rather than building teams and developing people. In short, the bank deliberately created a culture of conflict rather than collaboration.

Of course, both sides have a point. Philippe needs to change, but so does the environment in which he is operating. I am often asked to work with individuals in a conflict situation, but rarely does the organisation ask for feedback on why the conflict occurred and what they might do to prevent it. In truth, little is done at the organisational level to mitigate conflict.

Organisational conflict is emerging as a key workplace issue among the people I coach. They tell me that there is a lack of will and/or skills to deal with conflict and have many theories as to why it occurs and what happens when it takes root. From being an unwelcome distraction, conflict in a team or department can quickly spread, to damage relationships, lower productivity and morale and in extreme cases lead absenteeism, sabotage, litigation and even strikes.

So why are so many people experiencing conflict at work? There are two key factors.

First, the matrix structure adopted by many organisations has resulted in unclear reporting lines, increased competition for resources and attention and general confusion as managers try to develop an appropriate management style.

Second, globalisation has caused change and restructuring so that businesses operate more flexibly. There has been a rapid growth in virtual teams, with people from different backgrounds and cultures working across vast regions and time zones. Email and electronic communication are the most practical ways to connect, but these can be anonymous and lead to misunderstanding.

In addition to matrix management styles and globalisation, there are a number of other sources of conflict, including:

• Different cultures and assumptions
• Differing values, opinions and beliefs
• Lack of sensitivity to race, gender, age, class, education and ability
• Poor people skills, especially communication
• Volatile, fast-changing workplaces
• Limits on resources, physical and psychological

So what are the ways to manage conflict? How can managers ensure that it does not escalate out of control? According to the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Instrument, there are five key styles for managing conflict:

• Forcing — using your formal authority or power to satisfy your concerns without regard to the other party’s concerns
• Accommodating — allowing the other party to satisfy their concerns while neglecting your own
• Avoiding — not paying attention to the conflict and not taking any action to resolve it
• Compromising — attempting to resolve the conflict by identifying a solution that is partially satisfactory to both parties but completely satisfactory to neither
• Collaborating — co-operating with the other party to understand their concerns in an effort to find a mutually satisfying solution

Another way to look at conflict is to decide the relative importance of the issue and to consider the extent to which priorities, principles, relationships or values are at stake. Power is also an important issue – how much power do you have relative to the other person?

As a rule, I would suggest collaboration is the way to deal with important issues, although forcing can sometimes be appropriate if time is an issue. For moderately important issues, compromising can lead to quick solutions but it doesn’t satisfy either side, nor does it foster innovation, so collaboration is probably better. Accommodating is the best approach for unimportant issues as it leads to quick resolution without straining the relationship.

And lest we forget, conflict does have a positive side: it can promote collaboration, improve performance, foster creativity and innovation and build deeper relationships. As Jim Collins wrote in Good to Great, “all the good-to-great companies had a penchant for intense dialogue. Phrases like ‘loud debate’, ‘heated discussions’ and ‘healthy conflict’ peppered the articles and transcripts from all companies.” The more skilled managers become in handling differences and change without creating or getting involved in conflict, the more successful their teams and companies will become.

Are you caught in a conflict at work? What are the roots of that conflict? Do you feel that you, your manager or your colleagues are dealing with it effectively? If not, what are your suggestions?

Read all of Gill Corkindale’s Letter from London posts.

Managing Conflict (Paperback)
Divided, You’ll Fall: Managing Conflict Within the Ranks (Negotiation Article)
Harvard Business Review on Negotiation and Conflict Resolution (Paperback)
Leading Through Conflict: How Successful Leaders Transform Differences into Opportunities (Hardcover)

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Sarah Green Carmichael. Today, I’m talking with HBR editor, Amy Gallo, who has just written the HBR Guide to Managing Conflict at Work. Amy, thank you so much for talking with us today.

AMY GALLO: Thanks for having me, Sarah.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: So, the first step to dealing with conflict is, I guess, recognizing the type of conflict you’re having. And you lay out four types of conflict in the book– relationship, task, process, and status. I thought we could just quickly get into each of these a little bit, starting with relationship conflict. Because this is probably what we most commonly think of, maybe, when we’re having a conflict with someone.

AMY GALLO: That’s right. Anytime we have a fight with someone, a disagreement with someone, we automatically feel like it’s personal. And that’s a mistake. Because while relationship conflict may be a part of what’s going on, most often, the conflict starts at one of the others. So, relationship conflict is that personal feeling. It might be you snapping at your colleague or raising voices. And that’s where it feels personal. And it feels like you’re being disrespected. That’s what a personal conflict is.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: And if someone just like, the way they chew annoys you, that might just be a sign of person conflict.

AMY GALLO: Yes, exactly.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: Not a bigger issue.

AMY GALLO: Yes, exactly.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: So what about process and task conflict? How are these different from each other? What are they exactly?

AMY GALLO: So task conflict is when you disagree over what’s to be done. So you might disagree on the goal for the project. Or you might disagree– it’s one of those things that often happens between functions. So sales may see an issue one way, and marketing may see it in another. Or, a classic example is when a legal team is dealing with a contract. Sales may see that contract– the goal to close the contract as quickly as possible. And the legal team may see it as a way to protect the company.

So you’re disagreeing over what? Process is disagreeing over how. So let’s take that same example of the contract. Legal may think that they should be as tough as possible. We should play hardball. Whereas, sales thinks, well, you know, we’re going to have to have this relationship ongoing after the contract is finished, so we want to do, have more of a collaborative process. So it’s a disagreement of how.

And that’s also where decision-making comes in. So process conflict happens on a team when one person on the team thinks, well, aren’t we all going to discuss this and agree and come to consensus. And someone else on the team says, no, we’re going to go with whatever the leader thinks is best.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: OK. So finally, I want to just conclude by asking about status conflict. This sounds like the juicy one.

AMY GALLO: People often think of relationship as the juicy one because it feels really bad, but status is quite juicy. You’re right. And status is when you disagree about who is in charge. And so on a project team, it may be that two people from different functions– again, sales and marketing– one of them thinks they’re in charge. They get to make the calls. Whereas, the other one thinks that they’re actually in charge. And this is very common in our flat organizations these days, where there’s not a clear hierarchy on a project team. Or even in TAC team, it’s not clear who gets to make all the calls.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: Well, and it also seems like something that might come up in an office where you have, say, someone from the Millennial generation who has been promoted into a management position. And maybe other older peers don’t think that he should have been promoted. Or, you can see it happening in that sort of intergenerational workplace, as well.

AMY GALLO: Absolutely. And it can happen for a variety of reasons. Maybe there is unclear hierarchy– who’s actually in charge. And it may just be even a turf war. Or someone thinks, I’m not technically in charge, but I should be. Or, lots of people have informal power, so maybe the formal hierarchy says, I’m in control. But really, everyone defers to you. So that creates a lot of conflict over who gets to make the call, who is actually in charge, and who appears to be in charge.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: So why is it useful to have this kind of rubric for thinking about types of conflict when all conflict is– I guess this tells you something about me– all conflict is sort of unpleasant to me. So why does it help to have this kind of framework?

AMY GALLO: Well, you’re not alone. Most people feel like conflict is unpleasant. And they have a lot of emotions when it comes to fear, frustration, they feel disrespected, as I said. And so, what’s helpful about this rubric is that you can actually take all of that quagmire of feeling and actually take apart what’s happening and dissect the conflict. So you have a starting point at which to resolve it.

A lot of times, like I said, conflict starts with one of these other things. You and I disagree over how to do the project, but then it starts to feel personal. Because I start to think, well, Sarah doesn’t actually think I’m smart. Sarah doesn’t think I’m confident in my job. She doesn’t think I know what to do.

And if I can really pull apart what’s actually happening, that helps me, A, look at the conflict and say, OK, is this actually a big deal. Do I need to do something about it? And then if I decide to do something about it, it helps give me the language to talk to you about it and say, I think what we’re really disagreeing over here is how we should do this project, not whether we’re good at our jobs.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: OK. That’s a great point. So in terms of getting into– we’re sort of making the segue naturally– but let’s declare it outright. What about dealing with conflicts? What are your options for addressing conflict when you’ve sorted out what exactly you’re dealing with?

AMY GALLO: Right. So once you know what you’re dealing with, you have four options. The first is something we do all the time. It’s the do nothing option. Jeanne Brett at Northwestern calls this the lump it option. And I like that. Because we just lump it all day long. Things happen to us. There’s a disagreement. Someone says something snarky to us. And we just don’t do anything about it. So that’s a very good option. The second option is to address it indirectly. Now, in our culture, in US culture, in certain office cultures, this may seem completely untenable.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: Passive aggressive.

AMY GALLO: Completely passive aggressive. So, where I might go to my boss and say, hey, I’m having this problem with Sarah. Can you help me deal with it? Or, I might go to you and tell you a story about someone who did something similar to what something you just did, and insinuate this is how we’re going to solve it. That again, seems passive aggressive in a lot of cultures. But it’s actually a very reasonable option in many cultures and in many offices where a direct conflict is not going to get you what you need.

The third option, as I just mentioned, is to directly address it. And then the fourth option is to exit the relationship. Not always a possibility. But you may be able to get a new boss, get reassigned to a different project. You may leave the job, if the conflict is really intense.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: So let’s talk a little bit about addressing it directly, since that is the approach that many Americans often prefer or take or say they prefer to take. If you are going to dig in your heels or you’ve decided that you have to address it, how do you start to prepare for that kind of conversation?

AMY GALLO: So, I think the first thing– and a lot of people forget to do this– and this is one thing I think it’s very important for people to think about, is what is your goal. So if your goal is to stick it the other person or to show them that they’re wrong, think of a better goal. Because most likely, again, if your conflict started as a task conflict, as a process conflict, or even a status conflict, the goal is really something else. It’s to get the project done on time. It’s to meet a tight deadline. It’s to come in under budget.

So you want to figure out what is that goal. And in some cases, your goal maybe is to just preserve the relationship. But with that in mind, that’s going to help you frame your message when you get in the room with the person. That’s going to also help you determine whether you made the right option. So, if you decide to directly address, and then you decide your goal is just to preserve the relationship, you may realize actually I need to do nothing. I need to lump this, because the confrontation is not going to get me what I want.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: I’m going to ask you for some opening lines. If you are starting a conversation with someone that you anticipate may be difficult or you’re trying to clear the air, what are some good opening lines just to get it going? Because I think sometimes that there can be– once you’re talking, it’s not that hard. Just starting to talk might intimidate some people.

AMY GALLO: Sure. And I think that one of the other things you want to do– and I’ll make that apparent in these opening lines– is that you want to establish a shared goal or what anything you have in common. So any time you can establish commonality, you’re going to be in a better position to work together to solve the problem. And so, you might set the table by talking about what you have done together in the past, or what you’re trying to do together now.

So I might sit down with you and say, Sarah, we’ve worked really well together for 10 years. And it seems we’re disagreeing over x. You might say, I know we both want to get this project finished on time. Can we talk about how to get over these disagreements so that we can both do that?

You might also start again, because most people experience conflict as a relationship conflict, whether that’s at play or not. You might also establish your respect for that person. So I could say, Sarah, I really respect you and your work. And I value our relationship. I want to get past what we’re going through now.

And that I think, again, you’re trying to get you and the other person on the same page. So that together you can discuss it. You might also launch right into the type of conflict that it is. So you might say, Sarah, I know you and I respect each other and we have a valuable relationship. It seems we’re having a task conflict over what the goal is here. And that immediately will take some of the heat and some of the emotion out of what’s going on. So the person understands I’m not attacking you. I’m not saying you’re not good at your job. We’re disagreeing about this specific thing.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: What about a handy way to just shift the momentum of a conversation with someone who just seems stuck?

AMY GALLO: Yes, I think one of my favorites is asking for advice. So if you’re dealing with someone who’s unreasonable, or the conversation is just not going well, you can always pause and talk about what’s happening and say, I’m frustrated here. I feel like we’ve been trying to solve this together for awhile, but we’re not moving anywhere. Do you have any advice about what I should do?

What that does is it forces the person to think about it from your perspective. So it encourages them to do a little perspective taking and put themselves in your shoes. And even through that process, they might say, oh wait, I see what he’s trying to do or she’s trying to do here and may suggest something. And you can say, do you have any advice for me. If you were in my shoes, what would you do? It really helps to turn the tables a little bit and enlist the person in solving the problem.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: OK. So I want to ask a little bit about– we’ve been talking about if you’ve prepared for conflict. What if conflict has caught you by surprise? What if you unknowingly tripped some trigger for some colleague and they are now shouting at you? What do you do in that moment to get back on your feet, recover, get the conversation back on track?

AMY GALLO: That’s a great question, especially because I always like to say, if you get into a fight with someone in a meeting, you’re not going to run home and take a personality test to figure out how to solve it. So you need some tips and some tricks to use in the moment. And I think my favorite one is to take a break. Because what all the neuroscience shows about conflict is that we get into what Daniel Goleman calls amygdala hijack. So the part of our brain that’s responsible for rational reasoning just becomes non-functioning.

So you need to get past that. And if someone comes up to you outside a meeting and starts to yell, say, you start to lose control, you raise your voice. The best thing you can do is just take a moment. And you might say to your colleague, you know what, I need a moment to cool down and come back to this conversation. Or you might say, I really want to solve this. But now, I’m not ready to do that right now. Could we talk about it tomorrow?

And then, you sort of do things that will help calm your brain. You take a walk. You maybe go to a quiet room and do some deep breathing. You even sleep on it. If the discussion can wait until you’ve had a good night’s sleep, it’s always going to go better.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: What if the other person just doesn’t seem reasonable? So if something comes up in a meeting, you go back later in the day, try to clear the air. And they’re just still drilling down on you and giving you a hard time.

AMY GALLO: In my experience, oftentimes, if you really feel someone’s being unreasonable, chances are you’re being unreasonable in some way too. It’s more often a dynamic than a personality trait. So you guys have something going on between you that is causing the issue, rather than that person being unreasonable. I don’t like to label people unreasonable, because I think anyone can actually have a productive conversation.

That’s not to say you’re not going to come across that person who just really digs their heels in. In that case, I often suggest, if you’ve tried focusing on what your goal is, trying to establish a shared goal or commonality, if you’ve been really calm and done what you said earlier in terms of expressing the process, trying to explain what you’re trying to do, and they’re still not being cooperative, that’s time to get some help. You might find someone that both of you trust who can help broker a deal of some sort. If the situation is preventing either of you from doing your jobs, you might have to appeal to your managers and ask them to step in and help you figure a solution out.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: So that’s interesting, too. Because the book is the Guide to Managing Conflict at Work. And of course, it’s not just about managing conflicts you’re in. It’s also about managing other people’s conflicts. How do the rules of the game change, if at all, when you’re managing a conflict between two other people?

AMY GALLO: Well, that will depend on the type of culture you’re in. As I mentioned earlier, indirect addressing of conflict is just not something that’s tolerated in a lot of cultures or a lot of offices. And if that’s the case, your job as a manager when other people are having conflict is to encourage them to handle it themselves and to give them the tools we’ve been talking about. Give them the types of options for handling it. And encourage them and coach them to address it themselves.

If that’s not possible, you do have a role as a manager to make sure that everyone can get their job done. And if a conflict is disrupting the team’s ability to do that, it’s your job to get involved. And you need to just be careful. Make sure that you’re hearing both sides out, that you’re not playing favorites, and that you’re treating each person with respect.

And that you’re doing the same things you’ve advised them to do. You’re taking apart the conflict, making sure you understand whether it’s task, process, status. You’re giving people options for how to handle it and making sure that, at the end of the day, everyone felt it was a fair process. So no matter what resolution they came with, someone may feel like they lost. But if they felt like the process was fair and they lost as a result of that, everything else is going to go much more smoothly after that.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: So I want to ask– I just have a couple more quick questions. One of them– I noticed, when you have the steps to preparing for a conversation– one of the steps is venting. Why did you include venting in your list of steps?

AMY GALLO: Because as I mentioned earlier, there’s so much emotion involved in conflict. And people feel disrespected, they feel afraid, they feel frustrated, and you need to get that out. And you need to get that out before you sit down with the person. Because that’s going to help you be calmer, more focused, and take the issue for what it is rather than layering all of your emotions on it.

The key is to not vent it with someone who’s going to rile you up further. Find your most calm colleague, your most reasonable colleague, and say, can I just tell you how I feel about this situation. And then let it all out. Or, bring it home. Talk to your spouse about it. Talk to a friend about it. Just get those emotions out so that you don’t bring them to the table when you eventually sit down with your colleague.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: That’s a good point. So the goal of the venting is not to keep the feelings going and nurture them, but to expel them.

AMY GALLO: Exactly, to let them go.


AMY GALLO: And that’s actually a good point. Because I think once you actually get in the conversation, there’s another component where venting is important. And that may be that the person– you can’t guarantee that the person who you’re talking with has read my book. So you don’t know if they’ve vented before they got in the room. And if they need to vent, let them.

And Jeanne Brett at Northwestern has a great metaphor or piece of advice for this, which is that if someone is venting, and they are saying a lot of things that are hurtful or words that you don’t agree with, imagine those words just going right over your shoulder. Just picture the words coming out of the mouth and going past you. Because at the end of the day, you don’t have to engage, you don’t have to respond to everything the person says. And if they can get that all out, you might be in a position where you’re both more calm. And you can start to actually solve the problem.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: That’s a really great point. And I think it is one that is really important in a culture where people like to talk a lot. And of course, in a situation, you may be tempted to interrupt. And even if you’re not interrupting, you probably are giving physical signs that you would like to interrupt. And then people won’t feel like you’re listening. And then, they’ll just probably start their tirade over again.

AMY GALLO: Exactly. Or you’ll feed the fire. So if you say, but, but, but. And you just keep trying to disagree with what they’re saying, you’re going to just feed that emotion rather than let the air out of it. I like to think of the other person, their emotions as a balloon. And if you’re blowing air– in other words, talking to them while they’re trying to release it– the balloon is not going anywhere. It’s not getting bigger. It’s not getting smaller. It’s going to stay the same or it’s getting bigger. But you’re trying to let the air out of that balloon. Let them say what they need to say, and then you can move on.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: OK, great. Finally, I want to just ask you, in the beginning of the book, you actually say that conflict can have benefits. And I think that’s important to emphasize here, since we have been talking about the nasty, dirty underbelly of conflict. What are some of the benefits of constructive conflict?

AMY GALLO: So when handled professionally and productively, conflict can help you achieve better outcomes. So you have a diversity of opinions from people in the room. Assuming you can actually resolve those in a healthy, productive way, you’re going to integrate those opinions in a way that’s going to make the work that you’re doing better.

Another is job satisfaction. There are a lot of studies that show that people who know how to manage conflict well are much happier in their jobs. The third is improved relationships. So if you and I get into a fight, and we’re able to resolve it, we’re going to have a much more resilient relationship. We’re also going to feel closer, because we went through something difficult and we’re able to get on the other side of that.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: That’s a good point. Your closest friends are probably all the ones you’ve occasionally had a fight with us.

AMY GALLO: Yes. I would hope so.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: Yes. Well, Amy this has been really useful and interesting. Thank you so much for coming in and sharing your advice with us.

AMY GALLO: Thanks for having me.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: That was Amy Gallo. And the book is the HBR Guide to Managing Conflict at Work. For more, visit

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