Conflict resolution strategies for those in non-leadership roles
Conflict is one of the hardest things to deal with in any team environment for most people, regardless of position. This is often because most of us are not taught how to handle conflict in a work environment, particularly interpersonal conflicts, and this often results in feelings of helplessness and conflict resolutions that don’t satisfy all parties or lack of conflict resolution at all. While even those in leadership positions on a team may struggle with conflict, it is usually even more difficult to resolve conflicts if you are not in a position of leadership.
Having clear conflict resolution processes in place is a key element of any team collaboration, but realistically this is probably the element that is missing or miscommunicated about most often. In the absence of a more robust process, typically the default process for a team member in a non-leadership position is to make your supervisor or team lead aware of a conflict, and leave it up to them to come up with a process to resolve it. This strategy sometimes works fine, but if it fails or the conflict occurring is with the team lead or supervisor themselves, there is often no obvious recourse. This article offers a few alternative strategies to consider for dealing with conflict, including how to recognize productive vs destructive conflict, uncovering common roots of conflict, and the importance of seeking allyship support.
First, it is worth examining the idea of “conflict” a bit more closely. Conflict occurs when people’s beliefs, ideas, perspectives and/or experiences of reality are in opposition to each other. In US culture, conflict is often viewed as an automatically negative and undesirable interaction to participate in, and therefore many people try to avoid it. However, conflict can actually be a very productive process whereby people can be introduced to new ideas and perspectives and have the opportunity to integrate them into their worldview (although perhaps not right away). Conflict can also be a process by which your own ideas and beliefs can be refined and clarified because you are being pressured to defend them to someone else, which can be a very productive experience. In work environments, productive conflict between team members with different perspectives can actually produce much better results than teams that consist of people who share the same backgrounds and perspectives. This type of conflict does not usually require its own resolution process, and instead is something that occurs throughout the team collaboration process, with small resolutions occurring as ideas are developed and decisions are made.
The more commonly understood type of conflict is what I will call destructive conflict. I use “destructive” here to differentiate from “productive”, not as an indication of the seriousness of the conflict. Destructive conflict does not lead to benefits at the group level, and often negatively affects one or all of the individuals involved. It is important to note that destructive conflicts are not necessarily the result of bad faith intentions on the part of the conflict participants, and can simply be the result of a lack of conflict resolution skills on their parts or other factors. However, conflicts do arise where one or both parties have no intention of seeking a fair resolution to the conflict and further may be using the conflict as a tool to silence people, which I will term here as malicious conflict, as a subset of destructive conflicts.
One of the key differences between productive and destructive conflict (whether malicious or not) is a baseline practice of respect between conflict participants during the entire conflict, and the ability to separate the innate value of another person from their ideas or perspective. In productive conflicts, the conflict participants are able to separate their respect for the other participants as human beings and valuable team members from disagreement with their ideas or perspectives. An example of this is the process of giving constructive feedback, as discussed in part six, when one team member is giving another new information about how the receiver is affecting the giver or the team. The receiver then has the opportunity to integrate that new perspective and information, and make changes to their behavior. If this interaction is undertaken without respect for the other, either by the giver, the receiver or both, then it can quickly become a destructive conflict that needs to be resolved or it can poison the relationship. Destructive conflicts do not usually resolve on their own, and if they do, resentment and other bad feelings can linger and be ripe for future conflicts to develop with the same participants. Therefore, a separate resolution process is usually the best way to deal with them.
Destructive conflict can have different root causes, and uncovering the roots of a conflict can be very important to help choose the best strategy to address it. Sometimes something as simple as communication methods can result in a destructive instead of productive conflict. If it feels like that may be the root cause of a budding conflict, a resolution strategy to take may be as simple as asking the other conflict participant what their preferred communication is, or asking them if they would mind using your preferred communication method. Using my own communication preferences as an example, if a response to an email makes it clear that a misunderstanding is occurring or feelings have been hurt, I immediately ask for an in-person (or zoom) meeting to discuss it (my preferred method of conflict communication), which sometimes results in resolving the conflict before it really starts. It’s important to note here that this scenario, and any of the root causes discussed below, are things to consider that might be affecting both the person you are in conflict with AND yourself.
Another common root cause for conflict is when one conflict participant is projecting frustrations with something or someone else onto the other participant. This type of root cause is more difficult to deal with because it can be hard to spot, particularly if the team members don’t know each other well. A common way that this can manifest is when there are historical issues within a team that a new member may not be aware of and their presence, behavior or ideas is triggering past conflict dynamics. This type of root cause is usually characterized by a much higher level of emotion being present than the facts of the conflict seem to support. Whether you are the one projecting or it is the other person, it’s important to remember that feelings are always valid, but they are not necessarily based in the reality shared with other people, particularly during conflict, and this can make it difficult to resolve the actual conflict. The best way to approach a conflict where the other conflict participant appears to be projecting onto you may be to call out that you think this is what is happening to the other person.
Prejudice and biases, both conscious and unconscious, can very frequently be the root causes of conflict. These causes can be even more difficult to address than projection because addressing the root cause directly is likely to be extremely risky for the person with less power, as these conflicts are characterized by at least a social identity-based power differential being in play. Unfortunately, this means that mitigation (i.e. survival) may be your best approach rather than resolution. Mitigation might look like avoidance of that person as much as possible, or it might mean doing your job to the absolute best of your ability to ensure that they have few concrete things to have conflict with you about. This strategy is very energy-intensive because you have to constantly self-monitor as well as monitor the other person, and it can take a significant toll over time. If this strategy is the only one that seems to be available to you for an extended period of time, it is a hallmark of a toxic environment. However, there is usually at least one other strategy that is an option to consider for conflicts where there is a large power differential and you have less power; seeking allyship support.
Seeking allyship support can be an effective strategy for many types of conflict where there is a power differential present (as described in part five), but it is a particularly important strategy for conflicts based on prejudice and bias root causes. By virtue of the nature of the conflict being prejudice or bias against you for an identity you hold or other unearned reason, you are unlikely to be an effective advocate for yourself. Therefore, finding someone (or multiple someones) who holds more power than you, either in the team or outside of it (if the team operates in an institution, for example), and asking them for help can be much more effective. Allyship support can be indirect, like providing advice and emotional support, or direct, such as advocating on your behalf or asking others with even more power to advocate on your behalf. The exact form that allyship takes will often depend on the relative power that the ally has, and the circumstances of the conflict. For example, if you ask a supervisor or team lead for allyship support, then a private conversation between them and the person instigating the prejudice-based conflict can be one approach. Alternatively, the ally can offer you advice about how to proceed, support you in a conversation with the other conflict participant directly by being there and backing up your experience, or they can participate in a reporting process about the other person’s behavior, if that is available.
Conflict doesn’t always occur between just 2 people, and these are just a few of the root causes and strategies that are possible. The key to approaching conflict resolution for destructive conflicts is to resist the perspective that it is just your problem to solve. Conflict can often have an isolating effect on the participants, and in malicious conflicts isolating and silencing an individual may actually be the primary goal of the conflict. Also, when you are participating in a destructive conflict, your perspective on that conflict and your participation in it can easily become skewed. The best way to combat this is to talk about the conflict with others and seek allyship at least in the forms of advice and emotional support. Conflicts inevitably have a negative effect on team cohesion, and therefore are best resolved in community, whatever form that takes, either within the team or outside of it. Outside perspectives and advice are always valuable, and seeking allyship in various forms may both help to resolve the conflict in front of you and strengthen team cohesion as a whole.