Addressing Conflict in the Workplace (and out)

Make Conflict in the Workplace a Catalyst for Change

“Can a person ever change?”

That was the question we kept looping back to in a virtual meeting I held with several managers last week. These seasoned professionals posed the same question multiple times and in various ways. But it all boiled down to the idea of whether conflict in the workplace can truly become a catalyst for change.

Now, I’ve had a long-term working relationship with this group of managers. They care about their employees and take their role very seriously. They have created a culture where employees know they are valued. But that doesn’t eliminate those frustrating exchanges or difficult conversations that inevitably occur.

Change Isn’t Easy

When the same issue crops up time and time again, it would naturally make you wonder: Why? Why is it that the problem doesn’t get fixed after one, two, or three conversations?

To me, that’s a large part of the answer to the question, “Can a person ever change?” If it were simple to change, these issues would go away quickly and easily. But that’s not always the case. Oftentimes, conflict continues, either quietly or more obviously, and managers feel like their hands are tied.

Being Realistic

First let’s address the elephant in the room. Do you believe people can change? On a human level, we grapple with this, right? While we want to believe people can transform themselves (perhaps in all the ways we expect/want them to), our experience typically tells us differently. This can feel particularly true when we’re faced with recurring conflict in the workplace. 

Yet if we believe that people aren’t capable of change, doesn’t that limit us? Keep us from learning and developing? My answer is: No. I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive.

I definitely believe we should always be reaching inward for personal development opportunities. In learning new skills, experiencing new things, and being open to other perspectives, we can make significant changes. However, that’s different than actually changing our core personality.

The essentials of who we are remain the same, which isn’t a positive or negative; it just is. For example, with training, we might learn how to address difficult conversations more effectively. That’s a very important change to make. But the way we approach it, such as proactively or reluctantly, eloquently or uncomfortably, doesn’t drastically change. We always bring our inherent personality traits to the activity.

Working with Understanding

That’s why it’s so important to understand what our core personality traits are. Not to change them but to make the necessary adjustments for the job and our personal interactions. When we operate from a place of understanding and self-awareness, that’s when conflict in the workplace can truly become a catalyst for change.

In these instances (and really all the time), it’s also critical for a manager to honor the individual traits of each employee. A manager should support processes and a structure that accommodate each work style. You shouldn’t compromise the work goals, but you have to be mindful of how to get there.

Personality in Action

Dog Inspired Management Tip Conflict in the Workplace

This photo by Jo-Ann Gerde was taken of Grace during our agility work together, a process through which we both learned a lot about each other.

Though I might make this all sound cut and dry as you’re reading along, trust me, I know it’s not. Personality, which is what makes us so wonderful and talented and innovative, can also be the greatest cause of conflict in the workplace (and out).

This was a lesson I learned the hard way with my adopted dog Grace years ago. She was an extremely fearful rescue dog when she came into my life, and I was determined to help her to overcome her fear.

During our time together, we made a lot of progress, but my earliest vision of how she could change was not realistic at all. Looking back, I realize that at first, I expected her to become a totally different dog. Ultimately, I came to understand that I could teach her skills to deal with her fear, but I couldn’t eliminate it.

At her core, she was a fearful dog and for good reason. As much as I would have loved for her to be a well-adjusted, happy-go-lucky pup, that’s not who she was. I still loved her deeply, maybe even more. Not because of how much trauma she was dealt as a puppy. But because of how much she tried to overcome it, despite all the mistakes I made along the way trying to help her get there.

When We Push Too Hard

I remember one incident in particular that still sticks with me about what happens when we push too hard for unrealistic change. I had gotten Grace engaged in agility classes, which had great benefits. She enjoyed the physical and mental work, and the private, then small-group lessons allowed us to deepen our connection.

But after months of success, I made the call to push forward and enrolled us in a practice run for competitive events. Looking back on that day still bothers me because I know it was an extremely stressful event for Grace. New people, equipment, demands—new everything.

We had two runs; after the first, she actually ran away from me, probably trying to say, “Let’s leave!” But she held it together for a second and final run, following me faithfully through the entire course, despite her desire to be anywhere but where she was. At the time I considered this a success, but it’s clear to me now that it wasn’t.

Tuning In

Managers make these kinds of mistakes, too, especially when responding to conflict in the workplace. We’re human, and we’re all working with the ins and outs of our core personalities.

The story I shared about Grace has two sides. First, employees can learn from the patience that Grace had with me. I had Grace’s best interests at heart, but I probably pushed her too hard on that day.

At the same time, managers should tune into the personalities within their team. It isn’t easy finding the right balance for when to push more and when to let an individual find their own way of learning. But it’s critical to try our best by communicating.

When we listen to each other and learn from our interactions, both positive and conflicted ones, that’s when we create a high performing — and enjoyable — workplace.

Want to unleash your team’s full potential with insightful knowledge about each member’s personalities and actionable strategies to bring out their best work? Everything DiSC Workplace®, which is now available on the brand-new Catalyst platform, is an outstanding discovery tool. Take a look and get in touch to get your team started!


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