workplace conflict


Since the COVID-19 vaccine rolled out, the return to office life is slow and anything but steady. There have been a lot of false starts and one step forwards followed by two steps backwards. Many Americans are reportedly fine with not going back into the office. Bloomberg released a report showing that 65 percent of workers would happily accept a small pay cut if it meant they could continue working from home. That might be wishful thinking, though. PricewaterhouseCoopers released a pool showing that 50 percent of employers believe employees should be in the physical workspace between three and five days a week in order to maintain a strong company culture.

Whether you’ll be returning to the office soon or you’ve already been back for a while, this thought might have crossed your mind: you forgot how to deal with coworkers. There’s a lot of office etiquette that’s like a second language, and like with any second language, if you don’t practice it for a while, you start to forget it. To get a refresher on some of the workplace conflict one might face when returning to the office and how to handle it, MADAMENOIRE spoke with conflict resolution expert Damali Peterman of Breakthrough ADR.


Damali Peterson

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MADAMENOIRE: What are some new types of conflict or tension one can expect in the office, given the recent pandemic?

Peterman: Coronavirus changed everyone’s lives in different ways. The office environment will not look the same as it did pre-pandemic because, among other things, the people who work there will not be the same. You may encounter people who still want to maintain social distance and have no physical contact with other employees. Your office may have downsized its talent pool or relocated its operations. In short, there will be many tangible and intangible changes that you have to prepare yourself for before your re-entry.

Social justice mindset. The return to work for some employees will feel different given the social justice movement following the murder of George Floyd and the diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives that many companies are incorporating (or not incorporating).

Political atmosphere. The political landscape has changed in many ways, which could impact the way people discuss their values and priorities. 

Mental health. This topic, which was unfortunately, not always openly discussed is now being prioritized by many companies and employees


workplace conflict

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What are some common workplace forms of tension we may have forgotten exist that we’ll need to address again?

Heightened communication issues. If you thought there were communication challenges with certain people or processes before, the return to the office will bring about its own set of dynamics. First, people do not always say what they mean, and people do not always mean what they say. Second, inherent in the return to work is conflict, which will trigger varying conflict communication responses. According to the Thomas-Killman Conflict Mode Instrument, individuals have 5 response styles to conflict: competing, avoiding, accommodating, compromising and collaborating. For example, someone who was collaborating before the pandemic may be competing during the return to the office.

workplace conflict

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What are some common ways people overreact or are too quick to react to workplace conflict?

The five common workplace conflict examples involve leadership, personality clashes, cultural differences, independency issues and workstyle differences.  Here are the wrong ways to respond.

  • Leadership: Assuming that you have all of the information about decisions that impact you or others. Try to gather information or recognize that you do not have all of the data before making important decisions.
  • Personality clashes: Taking an “It’s not me, it’s them” approach. If you are interested in preserving a relationship, then you should take the time to understand why repeat clashes occur between you and certain colleagues.
  • Cultural: Only seeing the issues as cultural or identity-based when usually there is a confluence of identity, power and emotion at the crux of most conflict.
  • Inter-dependency issues: Listing all the things that someone has done to wrong you during group projects in the past. Start with a fresh slate.
  • Work-style differences: Trying to get your colleague to be more like your work persona as opposed to leaning into the differences and identifying their strengths.
workplace conflict

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What are some good tools/exercises people can use when facing a frustrating workplace situation, when they fear they’ll overreact?

Use this acronym, SMART:

  • Separate the person from the problem. You have to slow things down and ask yourself is it the person that is giving you angst or something that they are doing.
  • Make a point to understand the underlying interests, and not just the stated positions of the people in conflict. The position is what someone says they want. The interest is why they want or need what they have asked for. Often, people focus on the what and not the why. Take some time to understand the why.
  • Acceptreality with a “Yes, and…”. This is an approach borrowed from improv. At times, you have to accept a person’s reality to make progress and advance the conversation. 
  • Resolve with everyone at the table. Make sure that you invite everyone impacted to the discussion.
  • Trust the process. Change does not happen overnight. You want to keep practicing these SMART tips to have durable change. Breakthrough ADR trainings can help you with this!  
workplace conflict

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What are tips for working with very difficult personalities?

Identify the appropriate time and place talk. Have a “plan” for the discussion. Know your audience.  Respect different perspectives. Lean into the heat!


workplace conflict

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When should HR or a supervisor get involved?

A few different factors dictate when you should involve HR or a supervisor. First, you should use your judgment. Depending on the facts of the matter and how the situation makes you feel, you must determine if it is time to involve a neutral third party to help you navigate the conflict. Second, many companies have employee handbooks that outline processes for escalating issues. You should start there to find out what the appropriate grievance procedure entails. Third, if your situation falls under whistleblowing, consult guidance specific to that approach.

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