How to Handle Disagreements at Work

Updated on June 10, 2020
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Sally is a business communications coach who gives workshops on how to keep your professional reputation squeaky-clean and drama-free.

This article on how to handle disagreements at work will:

  • Explore different types of disputes and their root causes
  • Examine several different methods of resolving conflict at work
  • Explore the benefits and drawbacks of each style of handling a disagreement

Do you spend a lot of time and energy trying to please your boss and co-workers just so that you can avoid conflicts? Or do you speak your mind and make your own decisions regardless of what other people might think? No matter what your conflict resolution style is, there's always room to grow and create stronger relationships with the people you work with.

Are You in a Tug-of-War at Work?

No matter how you choose to deal with disagreements in the workplace, the one thing that most people can agree on—from CEOs and HR managers to part-time staff and contract workers—is that conflict is an inevitable part of having to work alongside other people. It not unusual for two or more different personality types to clash in the office.

But just because conflict is inevitable in the workplace, that doesn't mean it should be dismissed as nothing more than a normal part of our modern high-stress office culture. Resolving disputes in the workplace is vital to an organization's ability to thrive and grow in healthy, sustainable ways. The chart below lists some of the benefits of resolving conflict and some of the negative consequences of failing to address problems in a fair and transparent manner.

Resolving disputes in the workplace:
Ignoring disagreements leads to:
Fosters team work
Low morale
Increases productivity
Distrust amongst team members and between staff and management
Enhances job satisfaction
Encourages innovation and creativity
Loss of productivity

Conflict in the workplace can occur for a number of reasons. Here are some, but here are reasons difficulties can arise between staff.

Miscommunication. Sometimes conflicts arise because there has been a misunderstanding between the two parties. The good news is that conflicts that arise due to a misunderstanding can be resolved when all the necessary information is laid on the table.

Differences of opinion. When team members express different opinions, objectives, and performance targets, conflicts can arise.

Mismatched leadership styles. Everyone, whether or not they are in an official leadership role at work has a preference for how they lead others. Different leadership styles, though, can create conflict when everyone two or more people disagree on how to best move forward.

Difficult Personalities. Have you ever had to work with someone with a difficult personality?

  • The expert (a.k.a. “Mr. Know-it-all”)
  • The argumentative type (a.k.a. the Devil’s Advocate) A person with an argumentative personality always has to disagree with someone, just for the sake of disagreeing. They often claim that they are just trying to consider 'all angles and possible scenarios' but more often than not, they just like to hear themselves talk. They always like to 'get the last word in."
  • The people-pleaser. There's a less flattering name than 'people-pleaser' for this type of personality. He or she can usually be seen as always agreeing with the boss even if that means undercutting a co-worker
  • The narcissist (a.k.a. “It’s all about me!")
  • The pessimist. No matter how well things are going, the pessimist will always find something to complain about at work. Pessimists are exhausting to work with.

When people work as a team and realize they share similar goals, everyone wins!
When people work as a team and realize they share similar goals, everyone wins!

When problems arise, what are your options? If you witness conflict in the workplace, or find yourself right in the middle of it, you have an opportunity to demonstrate good leadership skills by helping everyone involved work their way through the problem. Conflict should never be allowed to carry on so long that it devolves into people refusing to communicate with one another, name-calling, triangling, or worse, a physical altercation.

If you are in the position of having to resolve a conflict, it might help to remember that your goal isn’t to make people like each other—that might never happen—but rather to hold each team member accountable for behaving in a respectful manner. Everyone has a responsibility to put personal differences aside in order to help the group as a whole move forward.

If you find yourself in the middle of a workplace conflict, there are several ways you can address it.

Let it go. In some cases—such as when a small problem arises between two people who get along like gangbusters 99% of the time—ignoring a conflict may be the best way to go. Let the parties involved figure it out for themselves. If you are the one who feels that you've been wronged in some way, you can choose to let the issue slide in order to ensure it doesn’t affect the group's progress. But while ignoring a minor problem once in a while may seem like a practical and easy way to address conflict, ignore a problem too often and minor grievances will pile up and become one big problem later on.

Smooth things over. This method is useful when a conflict arises because of a misunderstanding. Smoothing over the problem means taking time to ensure everyone has all the facts. It could also be as simple as one or both parties apologizing for a mistake.

The ‘buck stops here’ method. This is when a person in a position of power simply puts an end to the dispute by making a final decision on how the problem will be solved. This type of conflict resolution is suitable for situations that require an immediate solution—such as an emergency or crisis. It may also need to be used when a conflict is dragging on so long that the entire group is suffering. Use this conflict resolution technique sparingly if you want to maintain a good working relationship with your staff and/or co-workers.

Compromise. Compromise seems like a good conflict resolution method but it does have its drawbacks. When people are asked to compromise in order to solve a problem, they must make a concession in order to find a solution that is ‘fair’ for everyone. The problem with this though is that because each party is being asked to give up something in order to solve the problem, they may not fully buy-in to the final outcome. Their commitment to making the agreed-upon solution work may not be as strong if they feel that they lost out in some way.

Collaboration. Of the five conflict resolution methods listed here, collaboration is probably the best way to resolve conflict. When people collaborate, each person’s needs are recognized as important and each person’s skills and abilities are recognized too. Collaboration requires commitment and everyone must work together to solve the problem.

Important note: There's a big difference between two people disagreeing with one another in the workplace and persistent harassment and bullying. If you are having a conflict at work that can't be resolved in a reasonable manner, consider contacting your HR department or union representative for assistance. Sometimes professional intervention is needed to mediate conflicts at work.

The method of conflict resolution used the most in my office is:

See results

Instead of trying to avoid conflict, view it as an opportunity to learn and grow together as a team. Successfully resolving conflict in the workplace can strengthen connections between people. It can lead to creative ideas and remarkable innovations that that might not have been discovered if a conflict hadn’t arisen.

Research Material: Resolving Conflict, Leadership Excellence Series, Toastmasters International

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This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2016 Sally Hayes


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