Why Conflict at Work Isn’t Always Bad

Amina AlTai Headshot

When disagreements happen at work, it’s tempting to shrug them off in order to avoid an awkward situation. The conflict can be something relatively simple, like not being invited to a meeting or getting cut off during a presentation. It can also be a larger issue, like being called out or criticized in front of others. Emotions show up everywhere at work, and the way we respond to conflict, says Amina AlTai, is often reflective of our shadow—what Carl Jung described as the dark side of our personality.

AlTai helps people discover what makes them happy at work so that they can build careers that are aligned with their values. To feel good at work, explains AlTai, people need to learn to handle conflict instead of fearing it. AlTai believes that the dark sides of our personalities never show up as fully as they do in the workplace, and this is where conflicts usually manifest. “We tend to be more performative at work than we are in other areas of our lives. We are living specific roles and often unconscious and unexamined ideas of how we need to be at work,” explains AlTai. “Meeting the shadow serves as an opportunity to examine and integrate that buried part of ourselves so we can live more wholly and authentically.”

So solving a dispute is often not about who’s right and who’s wrong. As AlTai outlines below, it’s essential to make peace with conflict, seek to understand the other person’s perspective, know your own communication style, integrate your shadow parts, then give actionable feedback. This, she says, can help defuse difficult situations and make work a place where we can feel more whole.

5 Steps for Understanding Workplace Conflict

By Amina AlTai

The workplace has undergone a radical reimagining during COVID-19. Many of us with office jobs have been thrust into working from home without the awareness or training to collaborate successfully with remote teams. Those who are frontline workers and those being called into their place of business are experiencing unimaginable hardships and incremental pressure. Suffice to say, work stress may be at an all-time high, and that can have major implications for how we communicate and manage conflict.

In my work, one of the most supportive assessments I use is the DiSC assessment, which highlights your particular communication style. It’s a helpful tool that allows us to see the strength in our communication style, as well as some of the pitfalls when we are under pressure. All communication styles are on a spectrum. When conditions are favorable, we can communicate in our highest and best form. When conditions are less favorable, like in a global pandemic, we can show up in ways that are unsupportive—that is, until we drive awareness around these behaviors.

Stressful situations tend to push us to the less favorable end of our communication style. Those of us who are direct may become aggressive and overpowering. Those of us who are more supportive and accomodating may allow our boundaries to become crossed. Our stress response and our level of awareness around it dictate how we will manage conflict. Because healthy conflict is a big part of our work life, we want to learn to work with it rather than fearing it. I want to name and note that some workplaces are rife with power dynamics and structures that do not support all people. The following tips are generalized and do not reflect how one would navigate more-egregious behavior, such as racism, bias, and microaggressions.

Here are my five steps for better understanding workplace conflict:

1. Make peace with conflict.

A lot of us hear the word “conflict” and immediately think and feel negative connotations. Conflict suggests a difference in experience, which at its core is not an inherently bad thing. It is a natural part of human interaction, and the sooner we make peace with it rather than fearing it, the better we can navigate it when it does arise. Ask yourself whether you are afraid of conflict. Do you tend to avoid it? If you fear conflict, where did you first learn that conflict was something negative? How can you reframe conflict now?

2. Seek to understand, not to be right.

When we come together with someone in conflict, we often feel wronged, and our first instinct can be to prove ourselves right. That is where conflict can spiral. We want to set the intention to understand rather than to be right. When I’m working with clients who are navigating conflict at work, I ask: What are the facts and where might we be in a story? We all have stories that we tell ourselves. Before you head into a feedback conversation, ask yourself: What is the story I might be telling myself? I also invite clients to step into the other person’s shoes. If you were to see this from the other person’s perspective, what might a more generous story look like? When we start to take ourselves out of the stories and anchor in the facts, we’ll often see that we share the same goals and intentions as the person we are in conflict with.

3. Understand your role.

Conflict is like a dance we do with a partner—as we move and act, so do they. While we explore conflict, it’s important to understand our own role and style. As someone who is a more direct communicator, I know that when I’m in a stress response, I can move from direct to aggressive, which can be triggering for someone with a different style. So I check myself before heading into a feedback conversation and ensure I’m dialing up empathy and deep listening to support a more powerful outcome for all. When you are stressed and under pressure, how do you handle challenging situations? What behaviors do you tend to overuse when you’re highly stressed? How might that undermine psychological safety for those around you? What behaviors can you dial up to support a stronger outcome for all involved? Similarly, what behaviors can you dial down?

4. Know thy shadow.

Shadow work in the context of our careers is vital and foundational. The concept of the shadow was first introduced by Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung. He refers to it as the “unknown dark side of the personality.” I believe we meet people’s shadows at work more than we do in most other places. We all have some form of shadow unless we’ve done the work (and keep doing the work) to integrate those denied aspects. It can manifest as harsh judgment of others (usually what we’re judging in others is what we’ve deemed unlovable in ourselves), bias, emotional volatility, perfectionism, and lashing out. It can have a huge impact on our work, our relationships, our sense of self, and our lives. As we navigate workplace conflict, where might our shadow parts be getting triggered? What is it about the person you are in conflict with that might be a disowned piece of yourself? Chances are it has to do with the traits we don’t want to look at and have relegated to the shadow.

5. Learn how to give and receive feedback.

In my practice, I see that a lot of workplace conflict arises because leaders aren’t always taught how to lead. Managers and team members may not be trained in how to have difficult conversations or give actionable feedback. Feedback, in actuality, is a generous gift if we are willing to see it that way. It allows us to grow, to hone our craft, and to be better than we were yesterday—when delivered in a supportive way. Feedback conversations tend to feel scary for the giver and the receiver. We want to normalize them and follow a supportive format. When it comes to giving feedback, first and foremost, check your intentions as outlined in step one. Then I like to use the Situation-Behavior-Impact framework from the Center for Creative Leadership (the SBI model). In this format, we come out of the story by highlighting the factual situations and behaviors that have occurred. We share the impact that those choices have had on us, our teams, and the organization. Because feedback without action is simply venting, I recommend always concluding this process with actionable next steps to ensure we embody these changed behaviors.

You can download my full guide to navigating conflict at work here.

Amina AlTai works with clients to help them feel happy at work. Her mind, body, and business coach methodology combines her experience in brand building and marketing with training in nutrition, fitness, and mindfulness to help people build careers and businesses—and lives—that are aligned with their values and passions. AlTai offers one-on-one and group coaching sessions, a digital course, and a journal for mindfulness exercises. She is based in New York City.