First, some background on me. While I largely focus on organizational development at The Clearing, I spent the first part of my career as a mediator in workplace conflict resolution. One of the tools I used in that work is the Thomas-Killman Conflict Mode Instrument. This model focuses on five approaches to conflict – and all of them have their time and place.
One of those approaches is collaboration – which we’ve talked about on this blog before. Collaboration is where everyone has their needs fully met. In contrast, compromise is where everyone gets a little bit of what they want, but not necessarily everything. So, while we’re always striving for collaboration, it’s not always realistic – and that’s where compromise comes in.
Compromise is often the answer to solving workplace conflict. For example:
- Compromise is often preferable to avoidance, where neither party is getting any of what they want because they’re simply avoiding addressing a potentially tense situation
- Compromise is also usually preferable to one-sided outcomes, where only one party has gotten what they want at the expense of the other, leaving behind feelings of resentment that may affect future objectives
Now, let’s take a look at how compromise can make a difference when solving workplace conflicts.
Tips for Creating Compromise When Faced with Workplace Conflict
- Put the organization in conversation with itself. It’s not always individuals who are in conflict. It’s often between divisions or departments or teams – and it is usually due to a breakdown in communication. This is anecdotal, but when I think about my conflict resolution career, 99% of the time when I got called in to help resolve a conflict the number one problem was that a productive conversation had stopped happening or that people stopped talking to each other because there was so much tension. So, the first step on the path to solving workplace conflict is to restore open dialogue.
- Identify structural barriers that are keeping communication from happening. Sometimes a breakdown in communication comes down to simple scheduling. Conflict is occurring – and compromise isn’t happening – simply because of conflicting schedules. Sometimes the barrier is a physical location. One part of the organization is physically located over here, so they’re not talking to the people who are physically over there. And sometimes the barriers are more metaphorical, like when people put up social walls to stop communication. Many times, identifying these barriers and putting the organization in conversation with itself is all it takes to drive compromise.
- Look for and address other underlying needs. Let’s say one person or team is being really stubborn. It might be that there’s some utility to that stubbornness (i.e., there’s a functional reason they’re refusing to compromise). When we identify that, the goal becomes unpacking that reasoning or digging below the surface issues to get to the root of the workplace conflict. From there, we recommend facilitating an open conversation or brainstorm where people can explore potential options without shooting down each other’s ideas. Getting it all on the table ultimately helps facilitate compromise – each party recognizes the other’s “must haves”, can determine what’s worth fighting for and what’s not, and work from that baseline toward a solution.
Real-World Examples of Solving Workplace Conflict Through Compromise
One particular client engagement comes to mind when I think about helping organizations successfully solve workplace conflict. We worked with a leader who oversaw hundreds of people in a major division of their organization. We met with the leader to discuss a group of night-shift employees who felt neglected and negatively impacted by some of the leader’s decisions. In my first interaction with the leader, they said, “Employees need to know that they don’t get to be part of our decision-making processes and we don’t always need their input. They need to do what they’re told.” In that moment, it was startling to me that somebody held that position.
However, I took my own advice, peeling back the layers and looking for barriers. We discovered that the people at the source of the conflict, the employees and the leader, had never met face to face, because the employees work on a night shift, and the leader works 9-5. So, we attempted to put the organization in conversation with itself and encouraged the leader to meet directly with the night shift employees. Critically, we arranged for the leader to visit with these employees on their turf – in this case, at night.
This gesture served as an olive branch and helped the leader regain credibility with a group of people who believed their opinions and needs weren’t being met simply because of the shift they worked. And it makes sense when you consider the concept of underlying needs discussed above – they weren’t going to give in to someone they didn’t think understood the specific demands of working through the night. Unfortunately, they reported that the leader did more talking than listening, but they felt that it was an important first step in establishing dialogue and rebuilding trust.
The compromise for the leader was that they sacrificed their own convenience to meet with the employees at night, but gained some credibility. For the employees, they got the face time with their leader that they wanted, but didn’t feel fully heard yet.
I was really pleased when a few months later the same leader told us they were empowering employees in the decision-making process. They cited that initial face-to-face meeting as a personal turning point, where what initially felt like faceless criticism and meddling evolved into valid opinions from people with specific needs. The beauty of the situation is that by following the simple steps above, a compromise that satisfied all parties was there for the taking.
The Bottom Line
I think it’s most important to remember that the nature of compromise is that you are not going to get everything you want. However, it’s almost always preferable to a stalemate or unhappy colleagues. If you’ve found yourself or your organization hamstrung by conflict, I would love to help you work through it. I can be reached anytime at email@example.com.