Psychological Models to Improve Conflict in the Workplace

by Kristine Tucker

Dealing with conflict in the workplace is rarely easy. Hurt feelings, jealousy and anger can lead to lower employee morale as well as a loss of productivity and a poor work environment. As a manager or supervisor, you can hire professionals to address workplace conflicts, or you can apply conflict-resolution strategies yourself. Some psychological models are beneficial and provide methods for encouraging healthy communication and breaking down emotional barriers. The goal is to build a team-centered workforce.

Differences Aren't All Bad

One of the best psychological models to improve workplace conflict is to help employees see that differences can be good and don't necessarily lead to anger or dissension. As a manager, you can meet separately or jointly with employees and try to flip negative situations into positive ones by stressing the value of different techniques. This lets all parties know that their individual styles can be effective, which has a positive psychological effect. You might say, "I know you disagree on how to market our services, but when you combine Jim's bulk email solicitations with Joe's personal one-on-one phone calls, you can increase sales. The two of you complement one another." Or, "I know you have different styles for interacting with clients, but Sally's take-them-out-for-dinner approach works well in conjunction with Ann's formal business meeting style. Both are necessary for maintaining relationships and getting work done."

Benefits of Role Reversals

You might hold a meeting with disgruntled workers in the privacy of your office and use role-reversal strategies to help each understand how the other feels. In a column for Psychology Today, corporate management expert Victor Lipman says it's better to get conflicts out in the open so they don't fester below the surface or lead to long-term resentment. The role-reversal psychology model works best when there are only two parties involved. Facilitating role reversals in group settings can lead to confusion and often force employees to take sides. You might say, "Jane, explain to me how you would feel if Nancy went to lunch with your clients without informing you?" Or, "Nancy, how would you respond if Jane came to me with complaints about you, but hadn't tried to talk to you about them first?" This conflict-resolution strategy gets sensitive topics out in the open, but allows you to remain at the wheel to facilitate discussions.

Strategic Placement

As a leadership advisor to Fortune 500 CEOs, Mike Myatt encourages managers to incorporate the "what's-in-it-for-me" strategy into their workplaces. In article for Forbes, he notes that workplace conflict is often minimized when workers meet their objectives and get out of the job what they want or need. For example, you might relocate a numbers-oriented, salary-motivated member to a work group that isn't very social and likes to make every minute of the work day count. Or, you might ask a friendly, outgoing worker to organize professional lunch meetings or join a team that prioritizes strong customer relations. Sometimes conflict resolution and conflict prevention are about getting the right people in the right place at the right time.

Focus on the Positive

Workers often respond better to praise and affirmation than discipline and criticism. As a result, you might use the psychological strategy of positive reinforcement to correct unwanted behavior. By publicly drawing attention to employees who have healthy work relationships, you increase awareness for those who instigate and encourage conflict. Avoid mentioning teams or departments that are ridden with strife. Instead, focus on the teams that work well together. You might say, "I want to express thanks to the design team for working together to meet deadlines this week," or "Special thanks to the finance division for their teamwork in ensuring that the quarterly reports were accurate." For this strategy to work properly, you must make meetings mandatory so troublemakers are there to hear your affirmation of others.

About the Author

As curriculum developer and educator, Kristine Tucker has enjoyed the plethora of English assignments she's read (and graded!) over the years. Her experiences as vice-president of an energy consulting firm have given her the opportunity to explore business writing and HR. Tucker has a BA and holds Ohio teaching credentials.

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