Working Through Conflict

When you’re in conflict with a colleague, it’s tempting to be indignant—the solution is so obvious! So why won’t they do it?

The reality is that the outcomes we can see —good and bad—aren’t always obvious to all, which makes it challenging to have a productive conversation. This often results in what psychologists call the fundamental attribution error: the tendency to attribute our motives differently from others’. When I do something, it’s because I have objective reasons. When you do it, it’s because that’s just who you are as a person. Our obsession with personality tests at work can sometimes make this worse, making us see conflict as driven by differences in personality or preferences, ultimately making conflict inevitable and immovable.

While politics and personal differences will always exist, the reality is, most conflict at work is really driven by different interpretations of the shared situation: different priorities, different information, or different perspectives on the mission. And these difference are relatively easy to hash out—assuming everyone can calm down. The next time you find yourself in a seemingly intractable debate:

  • Keep it rational. The situation may make your blood boil, but a heated exchange won’t solve anything. Take a moment to collect yourself, and if possible, return to the conversation when you’re in a more neutral state.

  • Think through all the outcomes. Consider what would happen if your colleague did as you asked—what good would result? Specifically, think through how it will get your colleague what they want—people will only act once they believe something is in their interest.

  • Remember that others are acting rationally from their own perspective. It’s not that they discount your perspective, but rather, your perspective isn’t on their radar at all. If you help them see why the things you are attending to are important to outcomes they want, they may come around.

  • Consider your own blind spots. We’ve all heard the old chestnut that you have to walk a mile in another person’s shoes. But it turns out this mental exercise still limits us to information that we already have. Probe to find what information you’re missing that may help you better understand their behavior, and why it might make sense. Pay special attention to pressures that they might be under, and what systems or structures might be influencing their behavior.


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