Dave Conrad: Pay attention to workplace tension

Dear Dave:Where I work, conflict and tension is all around me. People seem to antagonize each other and arguments are quite common. Why is there so much tension at work and what can be done about it? Management seems to just look the other way. —P

Dear P:Yes, conflict occurs in every office to varying degrees and with almost every employee. While you can try and avoid conflict (good idea), you cannot escape conflict.

Conflict rarely resolves itself. In fact, conflict normally escalates if not dealt with proactively and properly. We all have seen what might have been a small tiff turn into a monumental problem if not resolved early on.

Every workplace is plagued with manipulative people who use emotion to create conflict in order to cover-up for their lack of substance. I won't even get into the personality types who thrive on conflict, but, trust me, there are many who try to make themselves feel better by making the lives of others quite difficult.

Good leaders recognize that developing effective conflict resolution skills are an essential component for building a sustainable, collaborative work environment. Unresolved conflict often results in loss of productivity, the stifling of creativity, and the creation of barriers to cooperation and collaboration.


When I ask my Rochester MBA students to define workplace conflict, the responses range from the presence of negative situations to people having an extreme dislike for other people. Some define it as anger, distrust, or antagonism.

I believe that conflict does not need to be seen as just negative. In fact, it can be neutral or even positive. Conflict can simply be defined as creative tension and can actually be harnessed to challenge and change things.

However, left unaddressed, everyone, including the organization, suffers. Good people leave. Customers notice and leave. And, there is just a general presence of cynicism present that makes everyone uneasy … and confrontational.

While having a conflict resolution structure is important, it is dependent upon the ability of all employees to understand the benefits of conflict resolution. The following tips will help to more effectively handle conflicts in the workplace:

Figure out why everyone's upset:You want to bring all of the issues out in to the open. In order to resolve a workplace conflict you have to understand what the real problem is. Assess the impact of the problems you're faced with, along with the consequences.

Deal with it:By proactively seeking out areas of potential conflict, and appropriately intervening in a just and decisive fashion, you will likely prevent certain conflicts from ever arising.

Pick your battles:Ask yourself how important this problem really is. Does it really affect you or is it something that has nothing to do with you? Is it an ongoing problem or a one-time incident?

Listen to all sides:Make sure that along with any emotional information, you discuss specific facts or events that led up to or inflamed the situation. Surface the issues and remain objective.


Remain professional and calm:Disputes are going to happen, but try to remain calm and unemotional. Remember that two wrongs do not make a right.

The reality is that the root of most conflict is either born out of poor communication, or the inability to control one's emotions. Accordingly, people must communicate effectively and stay in control of their emotions.

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