Conflicts in the workplace can get out of hand when people stop listening to each other and instead concentrate on defending their positions. The late management guru Peter Drucker said, “The only things that evolve by themselves in an organization are disorder, friction and malperformance.”

In my opinion, the three are closely related. And most of those issues are caused by friction — workplace conflicts. Serious office feuds can really hurt productivity. It’s hard to use a computer when you are wearing boxing gloves.

But conflict in the workplace doesn’t have to turn into full-scale war. Smart managers don’t let their emotions get out of control. Smart employees also need to keep their tempers in check. Before exploding at an employee or co-worker, remember the following advice:

Listen to their story. You have to get problems out in the open before you can resolve them. Much of the time, an employee simply wants to be heard. Sit back and let the person speak.

Employees will be more willing to listen to other points of view once they have had a chance to express their feelings.

And if you realize you are not saying anything constructive, stop talking. Let the other person continue until he or she realizes you have disengaged from the power struggle.

Pay attention to your behavior. What’s your tone of voice? What is your body language communicating? Focusing on your reactions and emotions will help you stay calm.

Identify the real problem. Often the stated reason for a disagreement masks a hidden issue. You might be upset when an employee misses a deadline, but the root cause of your anger may be a perceived lack of respect for you. Ask yourself and the other person (or people), “What’s really getting in the way of a solution here?” Find the real obstacle and you will be in a much better position to remove it.

Focus on the big picture. Disputes can be messy, with problems overlapping each other. Don’t get too involved in the details, but keep an eye on the overall impact of the problem. Once the main issues are on the table, trivial disagreements tend to disappear.

Don’t push too fast. Even when the solution is obvious, don’t suggest it too quickly. People need time to process their feelings about the situation. An employee may want the other person to understand how he or she feels. Solving the problem in five minutes won’t create a real sense of resolution.

Take responsibility for communication. As a manager or employee, you have to clear the air — even if the other person tries to let the problem drop. Insist on an open, honest dialogue.

Stay positive. Take a deep breath and try to control the impulse that makes you fight back. Try to find something positive, if nothing else, in the fact that you’re gaining experience dealing with conflict.

As my mother used to say, you don’t have to like someone, but you have to get along.

Mackay’s Moral: Getting along goes a long way toward a productive workplace.


Harvey Mackay is a Minneapolis businessman. Contact him at 612-378-6202 or e-mail