OER (en): Conflict Communication

Nobody Likes Conflict – Let’s Help You Resolve Conflicts More Easily

Deutsche Version

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Contributors: Deidree Tjokrosetio, Laura Winkens, Morris Ameyaw Yiadom, and Sofie Schuller

When Things Do Not Go as Smoothly as Expected

Your negotiation with your employer might not have gone as expected. You have agreed that with the new responsibilities and tasks you should get a pay raise eventually. The offer that has been put forward is the bare minimum in your eyes, so you still think you should not let this go yet. During the negotiation you could not reach consensus, despite your best efforts to make use of your knowledge of successful negotiation. Since neither of you seem to want to give in to the other, a workplace conflict seems to have emerged.  How can you best approach a conflict situation like this? Practical tips for this will be discussed with Phillis Fajardo in the podcast below. In addition to these, it could be beneficial to know what kind of leadership styles exist. This can help in identifying what style of leadership your manager uses, and knowing their characteristics and mindset can help in finding the best approach to communication in this conflict of interests.

Leader Does Not Mean Leader

While there are many different categorizations of leadership styles, the Full Range of Leadership Model by Avolio and Bass has been a popular way of classifying three distinct styles of leadership:

Transformational Leadership

A leader who uses the transformational style is mostly oriented on long term goals and values. A transformational leader ideally wants to ‘transform’ the company and its employees, by focusing on growth and development. Here, progress is key. In order to achieve this, these leaders will encourage people to approach problems from new perspectives, provides encouragement and support, and communicates a vision. This leadership style often goes hand in hand with high morale among employees, however, only if all involved individuals share a corporate vision. Sometimes this leads to pressure on employees by having to be actively involved with the long term goals of a company, and creates a feeling of increased responsibility. Given the fact that a transformational leader heavily depends on other employees, they tend to value their input more, which makes them more willing to take your points into account during a conflict. On the other hand, they do expect a lot of you and can be difficult to fulfill their high expectations.

Transactional Leadership

A leader who works with a transactional style is, in contrast to a transformational leader, not looking for change in their company. The main goal of this leadership style is to keep things steady, with minimal change. The way a transactional leader likes to achieve this is by promoting compliance through rewards and punishment. Based on reinforcement, employees in these kind of environments are valued in exchange for their performance. While employees who work with a manager using this style tend to have a good overview of what is expected of them, it becomes more difficult to motivate employees and stimulate creativity, and there is less focus on building relationships. These leaders believe in their own authority, therefore the personal relationship with the manager has a very clear cut dynamic. This makes personal conflicts difficult, whereas conflicts regarding an increase in ‘reward’ is more straight forward.

Avoidant Leadership

Where the transformational and transactional leaders are highly involved with their employees, the avoidant style of leadership seems to detach from their leader role and generally allows their employees to do whatever they want. They believe that employees do not need to be told how to do their job, and tend to focus mostly on their own agenda. While this gives their employees a lot of freedom, they also generally lack guidance and leadership. It is not uncommon for this style to be uncomfortable in dealing with conflict, since they can have difficulties in communicating what they want.  You might perceive the freedom that you are provided as very useful, however when it comes to a conflict there is little personal relationship nor interest from your manager to build on.

Dealing with Conflict in Connection to Different Styles of Leadership

Now that it is clear which leadership styles can broadly be distinguished, this information can help you in communication with your manager during work conflict situations. Depending on which style your manager is using, they value certain aspects differently and will have different goals with their leadership. Knowing these values and goals can help you in adjusting your requests in such a way that they become more in line with the course of action your manager wants to follow, increasing the likelihood of them being willing to follow up on your suggestions. For instance, a transformational leader values the atmosphere in the workplace highly. If you frame the point you disagree on from the perspective of how you feel about this atmosphere and how your point can help in improving this, they will be more likely to agree with your point in comparison to when you frame it from your own personal perspective.

Aside from knowing the style of your manager, and how you should approach bringing up points that could lead to conflict with them, there are many practical tips to guide you in addressing difficult issues and conflict communication in general. While many of these are discussed in the podcast, it might be useful to explain some of these from a more theoretical approach as well. 

A common practical tip is to communicate using ‘I-statements’ as opposed to ‘you-statements’. This means that you can best convey your message from your feelings and point of view instead of their actions. For example, instead of saying ‘You never give me any credit for my work’, it is better to say ‘I feel frustrated when I work hard and then do not get any acknowledgement’. This is especially useful during conflict communication, since ‘I-statements’ tend to defuse while ‘you-statements’ tend to escalate the situation. But why is that? The difference lies in the fact that ‘I-statements’ focus more on your personal experience and feelings, which are subjective. ‘You-statements’ on the other hand suggest blame, and are usually phrased in such a way that it seems objective. This encourages the other person to deny any wrong-doing, whereas the ‘I-statements’ tend to encourage cooperation more. Building up your ‘I-statements’ it can help to have a look at the steps from the assertive communication article. You do not have to cover all aspects, but it might give you an idea about what information can be included to make a strong point. 

Further, you should address issues immediately and openly, instead of waiting to see how the situation evolves. The theory behind this is that by not addressing the conflict until a later time, you are allowing resentments to simmer. Tensions can increase, which can make it even more difficult to address the issue later on. Addressing it immediately also has the benefit that it creates a more transparent atmosphere in the workplace. It leaves less reason to worry about the possibility of disagreements causing friction in other areas of the work without you or others being aware of it.

From Theory to Practice

No one likes conflict, but it is impossible to always avoid it – and it shouldn’t always be avoided. Sometimes conflict is necessary to reach a better understanding of each other’s views and goals. However, the key is to approach this respectfully and productively. With the tips and information given in this article and the podcast, you will be more equipped to tackle conflict situations. Maybe you’re not in a conflict at the moment, but you can already prepare by for example identifying which leadership style has your manager is. Do you recognize them in any of the styles listed? How would you approach a conflict with them knowing what style of leadership they use?

Podcast on Conflict Communication with Guest Expert Phillis Fajardo

In this podcast, Phillis Fajardo gives her expert opinion on conflict communication in the workplace. This is a summary of the most important practical tips. We still highly advise to listen to the podcast to get a full picture of our expert’s insights.

Phillis’ core message is conflicts are inevitable. We have conflicts as children, and we have conflicts as adults. Therefore, learn to embrace them. She also explains two types of leaders, which slightly differ from our article, but are not mutually exclusive. So called hands-on leaders are highly involved in their employees’ work, but can also be overbearing and micro-managing. Hands-off leaders are more distant and provide their employees with freedom and autonomy, but can also come across as disinterested. Neither of these types is inherently good or bad, it depends on you to find a good way to communicate with your leader. The current changes in the work landscape works in your favour here, as the opinion of young professionals is increasingly embraced. Conflict between employees can be resolved most easily through mutual respect. Here it is important to try to stay as objective as possible. Conflicts are emotional, but strong emotions are the key hurdle in resolving conflicts. Perspective taking is crucial, as, as much as you want the other person to understand your perspective, you also need to make the effort to understand their perspective. As a last resort, you might involve your manager or HR as a mediator in a conflict. These parties usually have some training and can support you, however, you should first try to resolve the conflict between the two of you.

Find all of the other articles and podcasts from our series on communication for work happiness here:

About the Contributors

Deidree, Laura, Morris, and Sofie are master’s students at Maastricht University and part of the PREMIUM Honours Programme. They teamed up with happy2learn to bring you this open educational resource.

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