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Conflict: What it is + Best Management Strategies

By Barbara Schmidtman, PhD

August 22, 2023
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In her monthly leadership series, Dr Barbara Schmidtman—vice president of cancer health operations at Corewell Health West—offers her perspective on managing conflict in the workplace. Find all her posts in this blog series on the ACCC website.

Conflict affects us all at some point, either personally or professionally. I would argue and firmly believe that although conflict can be difficult, it is natural and healthy. If we all felt the same way about issues or situations all the time, the world would be incredibly boring. Yet, many people find conflict to be extremely challenging to approach, handle, and move forward from. To better understand why that is, we must understand what conflict is, and how to best approach it, so that we can make meaningful and withstanding relationships with our coworkers or perhaps even personally.

Understanding Conflict

Conflict has been around since the beginning of time and occurs when opposing viewpoints clash. I think we have all been in a situation where we know someone else feels differently than we do. In those situations, we have one of two choices, avoid the differences that exist, and bury the feelings, or approach it head on—which can lead to positive or negative outcomes.  

Organizational behavior experts assert that conflict can be detrimental to organizations and our teams within the workplace. This is because teams that are experiencing serious conflict tend to lose sight of their goals, lack the willingness to understand others, lose sense of all motivation, and their judgement of others can become distorted. Considering these factors and recognizing that there is no way to completely avoid conflict in our lives, finding ways to effectively manage it is imperative to our organizational success, as well as that of our team members.

Managing and Leveraging Conflict

It is important that leaders can manage and recognize conflict; be it conflict that arises between individuals on their teams, or conflict that might occur between them and others—professionally or personally. Recognizing conflict requires us to know our people well enough to be able to read body language or read into situations and recognize when things may need further discussion to sort through. Whenever I have had conflict arise in my life, it has always been my intention to listen and seek to understand.

I believe that conflict is difficult to approach because we fear hurting others. Often, when we face a scenario involving conflicting perspectives, where one party providing feedback can present difficulties for the other party, we tend to avoid it. The urge to avoid conflict is understandable. It can create an uncomfortable feeling or environment. However, I believe conflict is a useful tool within society. We are all familiar with the saying, “you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet.” I think those words represent the advantages of conflict. Disagreements facilitate problem solving, which in turn can lead to innovation. If properly leveraged, healthy conflict can improve our organizations and teams.

When Conflict Goes Too Far

Unfortunately, when we don’t have the effective tools and strategies to work through our differences, conflict can have negative consequences. Not appropriately managing conflict leads to hurt feelings, and sometimes irreparable relationships. I think this is why it is so important to ensure we are addressing conflict with curiosity and understanding. When in doubt, you can always reach out to your leaders or human resource professionals within the workplace to help you develop the best way to approach a difficult situation with someone.

Barbara Schmidtman, PhD, has worked in healthcare for more than 20 years in a variety of professional and clinical roles. Currently, she is the vice president of cancer health operations at Corewell Health West in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Dr Schmidtman is the Chair of the ACCC Governmental Affairs Committee and the Workforce Subcommittee Chair, a subgroup of the association's Governmental Affairs Committee. Dr Schmidtman earned her PhD in business administration from Northcentral University, where she specialized in industrial organizational psychology. Her doctoral studies focused on physician behaviors and how demonstrated physician leadership affects individuals and teams—either positively or negatively. Dr Schmidtman has a passion for speaking locally and nationally on leadership styles and approaches.

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