What is Conflict?

Conflict seems easy enough to define and understand, but it is a deeper and more complicated topic than most give it credit for. In the work environment, conflict usually takes a protracted form, most often as a series of arguments or disagreements..

Where many things in life are one way or the other, conflict takes place in stages, small problems which grow and accumulate, eventually becoming what we recognise as conflict

The stages of conflict are a continuum of emotions and can be best understood through a case study.

The stages of conflict are a continuum of emotions and can be best understood through a case study. A team manager notices a problem; bickering between two team members.

The first stage is Annoyed:
A little bickering won’t do much harm, but it can easily get out of hand if left unattended. The manager briefly discusses the issue with the team members in question. Each is now aware of the problem, and they have resolved to stop arguing.

The second stage is Frustrated:
The bickering persists and is now affecting other team members. The manager sits down with each of the workers in question and discusses the impact their behaviour is having on the rest of the team and their work.

The third stage is Aggravated:
This is the point at which serious friction and emotion enter interactions. The manager’s message was not received, attempts to solve the problem (workshops, courses, etc) have been met with little to no progress and the arguing has continued. Escalation of the issue may be required. The manager now feels personally impacted by the situation, as they are locked into managing a problem they feel they have dealt with sufficiently.

The fourth stage is Exasperated:
Various attempts at solving the problem have failed, the manager’s efforts to solve the problem no longer feel rewarded. At this point, the manager threatens formal penalties (disciplinary process), because informal penalties and sit-downs have yielded no results.

The fifth stage is Enraged:
At this point the manager will likely ‘retreat’ in some way or another – saving the situation no longer feels worth the effort. Dealing with the problem hands-on didn’t work, simply terminating one or both of the employees in question will rid the workplace of the problem entirely.

It is important to note that at the root of anger is one of three emotions: confusion, sadness, or fear. Properly resolving conflict takes time and emotional clarity, but the context of a business places everything under a strict time constraint. The constant pushing for quick solutions means that business magnifies conflict and cuts short any real resolution process.

This is what makes dealing with conflict in the workplace so difficult, and it often leads people to simply jump from Annoyed to Enraged, skipping over the actual management of a situation to enact formalised penalties (with termination being the ultimate ‘solution’).

When dealing with conflict it is important to recognise its different stages and ask which of those stages you are at. Understand where your anger comes from and ask how those emotions are pushing you to take the next steps. Caution yourself against speeding up the process and take the time to resolve the situation.

“Conflict is inevitable but combat is optional” – Max Lucado