Conflict is a major cause of stress in the workplace - but is it a problem of our own making? We look at how changing your conflict style can reduce the amount of ongoing conflict you experience.
Workplace conflict leads to increased stress and reduced job performance and negatively impacts the health and well-being of employees. But as it turns out, it could be a problem of our own making.
Research shows that when it comes to conflict, the way you approach conflict influences the amount of ongoing conflict – and stress - you experience.
There are four styles of approaching conflict that this research examined. For those already well versed in this stuff you’re probably thinking, “but isn’t there 5 conflict styles?”. Yes, that is correct but the style of compromising – i.e. meeting in the middle – was not used in the research for various reasons.
When dealing with a conflict you can:
- Dominate – Use whatever power you have at your disposal (e.g. your ability to argue, your seniority/authority, your influence) to win/get your way.
- Avoid – Postpone dealing with the situation or avoid the situation altogether.
- Accommodate – Give in and give the other person what they want.
- Collaborate – Work together to find a mutually acceptable solution.
As illustrated in the chart above, conflict styles are a combination of two factors:
- Assertiveness (i.e. the degree to which you assert your own needs)
- Cooperativeness (i.e. the degree to which you consider the needs of others).
The research shows more cooperative your are, the less conflict you experience in your work environment. If you dominate or avoid conflict, you will experience higher levels of conflict. If you accommodate or collaborate, you will experience lower levels of conflict.
In terms of stress, higher levels of conflict leads to more stress. No surprises there. But there's a catch. Those who assert themselves experience less stress than those who don't.
Asserting yourself gives you a sense of control over the situation, which decreases stress. So, even though someone who dominates a conflict may experience more conflict and therefore more conflict related stress, it is somewhat balanced out by the fact that they are able to assert their own needs.
Let's take a closer look at each style...
Dominate (or Compete)
For you to win means someone must lose. Although you may coerce the other person into doing things your way, it’s unlikely that they are going to feel good about the outcome. You solve the conflict at hand but create ongoing relationship difficulties. When conflicts become personal, they are more likely to escalate. Not really a victory then is it?
Using a dominating style can also cause people to push back or resist, making it harder to resolve a problem. Research has shown that when managers use a dominating style, their employees are less likely to comply with their requests.
As any leadership textbook will tell you, influence is a far better tactic than coercion.
It seems somewhat counter-intuitive that avoiding conflict can create more conflict. How can you experience conflict if you avoid it? Well, just because you avoid conflict doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.
If you avoid conflict, conflict remains unresolved. Over time, unresolved conflicts pile up. Eventually your work environment is full of unresolved conflict - little conflicts that you keep inside that you that you never did anything about.
Avoiding conflict is not all bad though. It can be a perfectly reasonable strategy if you think that the conflict is not worth dealing with or there is a better time to deal with it. But, if you avoid conflict because you cannot assert yourself, it can leave you feeling powerless and cause stress and anxiety.
The strategy of just giving in and satisfying the needs of others is a bit of a funny one. It reduces conflict and therefore reduces conflict related stress, but leads to increased stress because you’re allowing yourself to be walked over.
The same rules apply here as do for avoiding conflict. If you give in because the conflict is not worth fighting – i.e. someone cares about an issue far more than you do – then it is a perfectly fine strategy. Let them have the win. It’s no skin off your nose.
But, if accommodating is your go-to move because you struggle to assert yourself, it’s likely to lead to increased stress in the long run. Better to face the difficult situation and cop the short-term stress.
Collaborating means working together with others to explore the problem, uncover underlying needs and find mutually acceptable solutions.
This style is really the best of both worlds. It's cooperative - which leads to less conflict and less conflict related stress - and it's assertive - which ensures that your needs are addressed and gives you a sense of control in the process.
The one criticism of this style is that it can take a little longer to work through a conflict rather than avoiding it, giving in, or dominating it - but studies show that it is the most effective conflict resolution style.
Given the benefits, it's worth the extra time.
Working towards a conflict positive environment
When working with others, conflict is inevitable. It's also necessary. We need a diverse group of people with diverse opinions. It helps us challenge the way things are done, see things from new perspectives, and generate better ways of working.
Where conflict becomes an issue is when handled poorly, resulting in more conflict and causing excess stress - and there is enough stress in the workplace as it is!
If you’re experiencing high levels of conflict with others (or see it happening around you), remember that we influence the environment we live in by the way we handle conflict. Dominate others or avoid the situation too often and you will experience more conflict in the long run.