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  • Writer's pictureJilian Houghton

5 Strategies to Alleviate Workplace Conflict

The first step to becoming a leader in conflict resolution is to get comfortable with the uncomfortable. Conflict is inevitable.

Many of us spend enough time in our jobs that regardless of whether we have a voice in deciding who becomes our coworkers, we spend a significant portion of our lives with them. As we attempt to collaborate with, manage, and produce deliverables with these coworkers, we discover patterns in our dynamics most especially where conflict erupts. So let’s talk about making the imminent conflict productive instead of leaving toxic wedges in our team dynamics.

As an expert wedge remover, I’ve encountered complex combinations of personality types, motivations, communication skills, and leadership styles. In our thousands of hours consulting with teams limping in circles around a problem, I’ve discovered that while there is an infinite combination of contexts for wedges, the categories of conflict are fairly universal. I’d like to prescribe five solutions to five of the most common wedges we encounter (and consistently remove…don’t worry you can do this and if not, we can help).

1. Listen to Understand, Not to Respond.

A “Paradigm Projector” is someone who is certain that their solution, leadership style, etc. is the best way. Period. The spectrum of the wedge created can be everything from outright rejections of communication attempts to receiving feedback solely to correct your logic. At the end of the day, a Paradigm Projector isn’t listening to understand your needs or unique view of a topic, rather they are listening for opportunities to convince you they are right.

An exercise you can experiment with is:

An essential skill to elevating your ability to listen is asking open-ended questions. Open-ended questions have specific elements. They incorporate words like “why, how, what.”

What’s the most important priority to you right now? Why?

What do you see as next steps?

What’s changed since our last conversation?

How did you reach this decision?

How do you measure that?

Why do you think this is a recurring issue?

These questions turn control of the conversation over to the person being asked the question. You’ll know you’re successfully engaging this skill when your questions shift the conversation to you talking less and your coworker talking more. If you find yourself interrupting their answer to share your opinion, if you feel uncomfortable relinquishing control of the conversation, if you don’t ask follow up questions to their answers, you might be struggling with some paradigm projecting. And don’t worry, we all do it at different times, you’re not alone, simply try again and use the questions above to reset the conversation.

2. Empower Yourself and Your Team to Communicate Expectations Regularly

Possibly the quickest way to create a wedge is uncommunicated expectations. Communication- and subsequent miscommunication- has 4 elements:

What you THINK What you SAY

What they HEAR


Think of the last time you attempted to address an issue with a coworker. You planned a few mental bullet points and managed to say something different than you intended. You probably weren’t as polished or diplomatic as you intended, and they probably only heard half of what you said as stress filtered their listening. And if they’re a paradigm projector or any of the other classic personality types, they may have interpreted a different message from the half of your comments they heard.

Consistent opportunities to communicate expectations and address unmet needs improves mutual understanding and reduces resentment. The results of these healthy dynamics in a team culture are undeniable. Increased productivity, innovation, employee retention, and more.

How to create opportunities to communicate expectations:

You can create these opportunities formally and informally. Plan regular meetings in a group and one-on-one to review progress in projects and clarify needs. Create spontaneous, informal opportunities by intentionally visiting with coworkers at their desk or calling them remotely. Recognize that each person has different communication talents. While some are confident and articulate, others may feel more confident in their written communication.

Your creative powers, willingness and the willingness of your team are the only limits to meeting and communicating expectations, so the opportunities are endless.

3. Equity in Your Accountability Structure

I had a client who complained that they each took turns being the metaphoric punching bag and golden goose. They weren’t the only members of that team who felt they were subject to arbitrary punishment and reward by their supervisor. A manager who applies policies inconsistently risks favoritism and harassment in the workplace. They are viewed as unethical, unreliable, and ineffective.

Providing equity in your accountability structure can be one of the more nuanced and challenging aspects of your leadership.

Actions to Eliminate Bias:

Favoritism and prejudice are two sides of the same coin. They are rooted in bias. The research is endless but the solutions are murky as you sift through suggested methodologies and practices. At the core of all of them though is the aim to eliminate bias. That begins with your ability to honestly, vulnerably and responsibly evaluate your own paradigm, assumptions, thinking and actions.

Reflection Questions:

Do I give everyone equitable feedback?

Am I praising and providing constructive feedback to each person?

Does everyone on my team know what I think of their work product?

Can I clearly, reasonably, and objectively explain why I think they way that I do about their performance?

Does everyone on my team come to me when they are facing challenges at work?

Have I communicated with every member of my team to an almost equal amount this week?

Why am I not able to answer yes to some of these questions? (This question might be better answered by a trusted colleague who can help you examine your own thinking or reflect back to you your thinking)

After you have a better understanding of your own thinking, commit to calling out bias. Help create racial and gender diverse project groups at work, interrupt the interrupters in meetings and give the floor back to those they talk over, give effective feedback, make sure high profile opportunities are being equally dispersed amongst team members, and be respectful of nonwork commitments (let your people have a life). 4. The Professional Skill of Humility

Lack of self-awareness and consequent lack of personal accountability is another universal experience. I am not exempt and neither are you. The oft neglected resource that reduces this wedge creator, is the ability of wise, trusted advisors to point us toward our blind spots. An effective leader is confident and decisive, but they are also able to absorb and apply meaningful feedback. Humility is a requisite for effective and powerful leadership.

Strategies to start today to increase humility:

Ask for help. It is easy to think we have to “do it all”, all of the time, especially as leaders. But by turning to your team in a crisis or when the challenge is just too great you are creating opportunities to build trust, connection and giving others permission to do the same when they lack the required resources.

Ask for feedback when checking in with your direct reports. When you are doing a regular check in with a member of your team (which you should be doing often) and providing them with feedback ask them how you can best support them? What do they need from you to be successful?

Listen to their answers. Don’t forget the cardinal rule we just discussed–Listen to understand, don’t listen to respond. Ask clarifying questions, and reflect back to them what you think you heard.

Humility is not an overnight battle, or a checked box. It must be cultivated over time and often must be nurtured throughout our leadership tenure. Humility will magnify our strengths and shore up our weaknesses if we genuinely ask, listen, and implement feedback.

5. The Wedge Removal Formula

You can remove wedges regardless of your role in a company hierarchy. Unresolved harmful conflict is a cancer that will destroy your ability to retain high-quality employees, increase productivity, innovate, and generally achieve greatness as a team.

The basics of wedge removal are straightforward:

-Listen to Understand

-Acknowledge the other person’s experience

-Create a way to mitigate this problem in the future

-Choose to be forward looking

On paper this seems pretty elementary, and it’s true that it doesn’t present any earth shattering revelations, but in practice there are often hiccups when trying to remove personal wedges. Just remember it takes two tango. If both you and the person with whom you’re trying to resolve things come to the table with your paradigms down you can be successful. And if the other party isn’t interested, then it might be time to call for help.

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