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Successfully Managing Workplace Conflict

Craig Van Slyke,  Franke College Dean

Last month we learned a little about team conflict, its sources and its impacts. This month we’ll cover how to deal with conflict. Let’s get started with a story of a conflicted team with four members: Pat, Dallas, Jamie and Drew. During a team meeting, there was disagreement over a key issue. After everyone expressed initial opinions, Pat stopped talking and just sat there. Dallas said, “Whatever you decide is fine with me.” Jamie started talking louder and louder, talking over anyone who dared to disagree. Drew said, “Let’s just all settle down and see if we can’t work this out. Maybe if we listen to each other we can find a position we can all support.”

Although they might not realize it, how much each person cared about outcomes and relationships determined how they approached managing the team’s conflict. It’s helpful to think about these as yes/no factors: you care about outcomes or you don’t; you care about relationships or you don’t. (Of course, there are actually degrees of caring, but the simplification is useful.)

Pat didn’t care about relationships or outcomes, which lead to a conflict management approach called avoidance. Basically, Pat just checked out, remaining inactive and withdrawing from dealing with any team issues. This is not a helpful approach. Team members who use avoidance just take up space. Pat didn’t add any value to the team.

Dallas cared about relationships, but not about outcomes, so Dallas used a yielding approach and just gave in. Dallas was willing to make unilateral concessions and make unconditional promises, going along with what the others wanted. Dallas didn’t make anyone mad (and hurt relationships), but also didn’t offer any useful perspectives on the problem. Yielding doesn’t allow for the constructive back-and-forth that leads to stronger outcomes.

Now we come to Jamie, who cared only about outcomes. Relationships weren’t important, so Jamie used a conflict management approach called contending. This is the bulldog approach, sink your teeth into your position and do whatever you have to do to hang on to it. I’ll bet you can picture people like Jamie. It doesn’t matter what anyone says or what evidence is presented, they’re simply not changing their minds. Jamie was willing to do whatever was necessary to win – dominant, aggressive behaviors, back-door politicking to build coalitions, manipulating information – whatever it took. Jamie’s unwillingness to consider any contrary opinions, perspectives or facts shuts off the possibility for the team’s diversity to improve outcomes. (This is a bit ironic, since Jamie’s main concern was outcomes.)

Finally, we get to the shining light that is Drew. Drew isn’t just a peacemaker. Relationships are important to Drew, but so are outcomes. Drew took a problem-solving approach and tried to integrate the various positions to find a mutually satisfactory outcome. This requires drawing out each member’s priorities and preferences. Drew asked probing questions intended to uncover and understand why the others held their particular opinions. Drew tried to get at underlying interests, rather than focusing on superficial goals. Drew’s goal was to fully understand the “why” behind each opinion. When done well, this helps the team learn from each other, leading to a superior solution that everyone can support. Drew brings significant value to the team, leading the team to peace, love and harmony … well, maybe not, but Drew does help the team use the conflict to its advantage, which will lead to better outcomes and relationships.

Before closing, we need to make two points. First, while we have tendencies for conflict management approaches, we can actually move among the four approaches within a single team experience. Our approach depends on how much importance we place on outcomes and relationships at a given moment. Second, Drew’s problem-solving approach is very consistent with the trust-based leadership model (listen-understand-persuade) that we discussed in earlier columns. Trust-based leadership is powerful, effective, and flexible.

Until next month … FBN


The W.A. Franke College of Business at Northern Arizona University is home to more than 2,800 undergraduate and master’s students. The College’s faculty and staff are dedicated to the success of its students and the economic development of the region. For more information on The W.A. Franke College of Business, please see:




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