June 27, 2003
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In work, as in life, there is a certain amount of conflict
that naturally occurs. Even when the results of conflict are good, engaging
in it can be stressful and tiring. That said, trying to ignore or avoid
conflict in your work can actually make it worse when it does occur. Often,
the best way to address conflict is straight on, before it has a chance
to develop into something more difficult or troubling.
Forcing the issue
I can freely admit that I am one of the most conflict-adverse people you
will ever meet. I don’t like confronting people and find conflict
draining, both mentally and physically. Over the years I have gone to
sometimes ridiculous lengths to avoid conflict. As I have grown older,
though, I have developed better sense about what battles are worth fighting
and when to fight them.
My own rule for conflict, especially in my high-tech career, is to address
issues as soon as they arise. If a client has a question or complaint
about billing, address it now. Don’t wait until the end of the month
when you submit your statement, or even the end of the day. Sit down with
the client before any more work is done and come to an agreement. Otherwise,
you will find yourself fighting to get paid for work that you have already
Do you have an employee or co-worker who isn’t doing what needs
to be done? Set up a meeting as soon as possible. Addressing the conflict
as quickly as you can makes sure that the issue is fresh in everyone’s
mind. You can then point to recent actions as exact examples of the problem
you are addressing. Contrast this with the typical end-of-year performance
review, where every transgression, most months old, are re-visited. How
are you, or your employees, supposed to discuss issues that you may barely
Ignore at your peril
Even if you dislike conflict immensely, you will find that ignoring problems
only makes them worse. From the smallest slight to the biggest ethical
conflict, time only makes the issue seem larger and causes people to act
even more irrationally. The longer a conflict festers, the worse the damage
that may occur and the more stressful the confrontation. Instead of nipping
a problem in the bud, the conflict is allowed to continue, involving more
people, generating more ill will and guaranteeing a major blow-up when
it is finally addressed. Dealing with difficult issues can be stressful,
but that is nothing compared to the storm that rages over a long-ignored,
yet extremely divisive issue.
If you have problems dealing with conflict, here are some important guidelines:
Quickly decide how important an issue is to you.
If the problem is small, you might just decide to ignore it. That said,
you need to carefully look at the issue to insure that it won’t
come back to haunt you in a much more dramatic fashion at a later time.
Choose your battles wisely, fighting only those that really matter to
Address the issue immediately
Don’t wait for your anger to grow or self-doubt to prevent you from
addressing the issue. As unemotionally as possible, address the issue
with those involved. Even if they become emotional, try to restrain yourself.
Fighting fire with fire only heightens the tension and actually lessens
the possibility of easily resolving the issue. Don’t wait for weeks
to broach the topic or other people may simply deny that there ever was
a problem. Addressing it immediately insures that it is fresh in everyone’s
Don’t back down
If the issue is truly important to you, don’t allow your dislike
of conflict to dissuade you from searching for a resolution. This only
allows others to take advantage of you, exploiting your conflict-avoidance
to further their own aims.
Let it go
Once you have addressed an issue, let it go. Don’t let the stress
and nervousness of engaging in conflict color the rest of your day or
week. In fact, I find that dealing with an issue brings a certain sense
of relief and closure. Addressing an issue with someone relieves the worry
that usually builds up around a conflict. Dealing with conflict can actually
make you feel better than trying to ignore or stewing over an issue.
Conflict is a necessary part of everyone’s life. Don’t
allow your worries, fears and disappointments to go unresolved. You need
to address conflict in order to move on to other, probably, more important
issues. While it may not seem so when dealing with an issue, addressing
conflict is a benefit to you, your life and your career.