There are just some things that come with being a human — aside from the whole death and taxes thing. We’re made to connect with others but sometimes those connections break down. We don't always get along, even with people we really like. This can be especially true at work. Think about it: if you drop any group of people in the same space, under stress, for 8 hours a day, they’ll find things to disagree about. There will be hurt feelings and upsets. Workplace conflict is inevitable. Because we’re human.
Unfortunately, excess conflict at work can be a source of undue stress in our lives. And remember, stress is already wreaking enough havoc on our health as it is, so we don’t need more of it.
When conflict arises, we need a way to manage it — to get through it in a way that preserves trust and relationships so that we can continue to work together going forward. One team, one dream.
The key to mindfully resolving workplace conflicts is to keep the issue, the issue, and not let it build into something greater. Thankfully, a multitude of mindfulness tools exists to help us prevent things from heading too far south and to bring us back when they do.
Table of Contents:
Who This Guide is For
This guide is for leaders. And not just those with a fancy title or direct reports. The world needs leaders who are in management positions and also leaders who aren't.
If you take responsibility for making your workplace better, no matter your job title, you’ll find tremendous value in what follows. If you understand that the most successful leaders start with themselves, the tools here will serve you well.
If you wait for permission before making positive change, this probably isn’t for you.
The choice we all have to act mindfully in the face of conflict is the choice to act as a leader. It’s something we live out through our actions. At any moment, we can lead by example, create a vision and inspire others to follow.
Whether you’re a manager considering how to use these tools with your team or working your way toward a leadership role, remember that becoming a mindful leader is your choice.
If that’s your choice, read on.
Top Sources of Workplace Conflict
To be blunt, the source of all workplace conflict is us. We’re humans and we’re all different, so inevitably we’re going to rub against one another. That said, most conflict can be arranged into a handful of categories. You’ll notice that in many cases, these factors end up working together, contributing in different ways. The biggest lesson, I believe, is for us to understand the complexity of human interaction as we approach managing conflict.
Sometimes conflict is simply about differing opinions. At the onset of this type of conflict, it’s nothing personal (though it can quickly get personal). Some examples:
- You prefer one option and I prefer another. I think the break room should be painted purple and you think it should be wallpaper. Obviously, I’m right.
- We don’t see eye to eye on how a situation was handled. We share a client and I disclosed something to them in a meeting you thought was inappropriate.
- One of us is just having a bad day and are quick to disagree with everyone else. (It happens.) It’ll quickly resolve if we don’t make it larger than it is.
When these types of conflicts are handled quickly and without other issues creeping in, they don’t affect relationships.
Even more, differing opinions are often a good thing. Sparks of tension between partners or team members can lead to the most creative breakthroughs because each person brings something new to the table. It’s when differences in opinions turn personal that relationships can be harmed.
Scarcity and Limited Resources
I use the phrase "one team, one dream" with a purpose. At work, we can forget that we’re a team all working toward one goal.
This can be a particularly significant issue when there aren’t enough resources to go around or people feel like they’re working more than their fair share. Often, it doesn’t even matter whether scarcity of resources is a problem the company is actually facing. If employees believe it to be true, they act as if it is.
Our brains actually change when we’re faced with scarcity (perceived or real). Our thoughts become focused on doing what we can do to stay alive and we lose the ability to see the bigger picture. This can result in acting with extreme self-interest, ignoring the long-term effects of our actions on other and on ourselves.
Conflict due to limited resources can take the form of bickering about teammates behind their backs, keeping vital information about a project to yourself as a way to gain power, or even hoarding office supplies.
Process and Structure
As employees, our work lives are often heavily impacted by the structures our company has put into place — org. chart, managers, work hours, office layout, technology and equipment.
If we think a team member is in the wrong role, especially if it’s a role we want to be in, our opinion can cloud any interaction with them. Or perhaps we feel constrained by the number of managerial layers in our organization that stop every new idea in its tracks. Or maybe our computers need to be replaced but another department is next in line to receive an upgrade.
Any of these scenarios can cause us to perform poorly in our jobs, lead to stress in our lives and ultimately contribute to conflict with others.
The processes that organizations create can also have a tremendous impact on our day-to-day lives. Without sounding too dramatic, I believe that businesses live and die by their processes — from internal HR process to methods for handling projects and quality control checklists, because they dictate how employees are spending their time. (How we do anything is how we do everything.)
If a process is too strict — formal business attire required — we can feel stifled. If a process is too loose — no formal employee review process — we don’t know what to do and can feel like we’re journeying without a map.
We all know how frustrating it is to encounter a problem that’s already been solved by someone who didn’t document their process, forcing us to make our way through on our own. Perhaps hours could have been saved if someone had just made a simple checklist!
As companies grow, it can be difficult to keep separate units working in harmony. The broader company vision is often lost as silos emerge and teams concentrate on their own priorities.
I’ve seen this age-old problem played out firsthand in my agency days. Clients who oversaw the sales or marketing department of their company were often at odds with their counterpart in charge of the product. Each department blamed the other for any dip in their team’s results.
“The sales team keeps over-promising results to new clients. There is no way we can deliver what these customers expect.”
“The product team needs to step up and perform for our clients. They have no idea how hard we worked for those sales.”
And on and on...
Remember, these two teams could instead be working as best friends! One cannot have success without the other. Salespeople need to trust that they’re selling a quality product and the product team needs to know customers are set up for success when they sign on. But if they’re unable to see things from the other team’s perspective, the conflict will only get worse.
Priority conflicts aren’t only relegated to large organizations or separate teams. At a former employer, we’d set priorities for our developers early in the day and the company president would often sneak in behind and tell them to work on his projects first. Then at the end of the day, we’d all be wondering why none of our work got done. Not only were our priorities out of alignment, but the actions of our leader undermined the rest of the team. So much for one team, one dream.
Miscommunication or Poor Communication
How many communication apps or tools does your organization use to keep people up to speed? How many meetings are scheduled as check-ins or updates? How successfully are any of those things working?
My guess is that they’re not working so well. Just Google “too many meetings” and you’ll see why. The trouble is, all the tools and meetings in the world don’t help teammates communicate if they’re not willing to be transparent or take the time to understand things from another person’s perspective.
A former employer had difficulties with new hires, notably because they lacked a formal onboarding and training program. People would walk in on their first day, be given a tour and email address, and then told to go do work. As you can imagine, this caused some friction, especially with junior-level hires who needed more direction to be successful. Unfortunately, leadership didn’t always step up and ended up rehiring some positions more than once.
Some questions to consider that might help identify if there is an issue with communication in your workplace:
- How many simple disagreements are caused by someone just not telling another person what they’re working on or their expectations for a project?
- How many performance issues aren’t addressed because a manager neglects to have a difficult conversation?
- How many processes remain inefficient because people work around them but don’t tell anyone?
The list goes on.
It comes down to this: Humans were made to connect through communication, both verbal and nonverbal. It’s key to happiness at work and at home.
I can’t relegate this conflict contributor to just poor communication. Dishonesty is its own creature and is even more nefarious than neglecting to share with others.
Trust is arguably the most critical component of both successful relationships and to employee engagement. Unfortunately, according to Interaction Associates, only 40 percent of people have a high level of trust in their managers.
We can only earn the trust of others through honest feedback and conversation.
In one of my early jobs, I was regularly told to lie to clients about our mistakes -- covering for promises made during the sales process we couldn’t deliver, or for the project being delivered late or of poor quality. Eventually, I lost trust in both my managers and the team around me, knowing how often I was asked to manipulate people I was hired to serve. It wasn’t long before I left for another company, and many of my teammates found new jobs shortly after.
The trouble with dishonesty is that it becomes ingrained in company culture, leading to further erosion of trust and more dishonest behavior. In the example above, I knew my manager was dishonest and ended up suspecting the same of my teammates. Had I stayed, I may have been tempted to play the game more and lie just to get ahead. Once dishonesty is embedded, it’s difficult to undo.
A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, right? Feeling that a coworker is not pulling their weight around the office can be a tremendous source of stress. After all, why should we work so hard if they’re just coasting?
Conflicts around poor performance often can be split into two categories: real and perceived.
It’s my opinion that poor performance, in most cases, is a secondary result of an underlying issue. Some examples to shed light:
An employee’s performance may suffer due to poor communication. Maybe he hasn’t been adequately trained or provided with expectations. He might hesitate to speak up because he senses his manager is already stretched too thin and doesn’t want to cause an issue. In this case, the performance will likely improve as soon as communication improves (on both sides).
A different employee’s performance might suffer because she’s in the wrong position. Maybe she was hired for a particular role and the needs of the position have changed. In this case, a structural change -- moving her from sales to customer support -- will get her back into a position of strength.
The performance of an entire team may suffer if the company’s larger priorities don’t align with the goals of their particular project. They might not be getting the resources, time or attention required to be successful. Conflicting priorities and resource scarcity are often contributors here.
Perceived performance issues are even more often caused by something else. If I don’t have good visibility into the work a teammate is doing on a large project, I might think they’re just wasting time. Increasing communication throughout the team will help me to better appreciate what others are contributing.
All that to say: “fixing” someone’s performance isn’t always as straightforward as it seems.
Maybe the boss realizes a process or structure just isn’t working and decides to make a change. Most of the team loves it. But some people just don’t. They didn’t see anything wrong with the old way.
Suddenly, it’s Us vs. Them and I’m refusing to change. Why should I, after all, if I’m not the one with a problem? (See how this is also linked to poor communication? It all connects.)
We’ve now created an even larger problem with the team moving in different directions.
Change is such a powerful and expansive topic that I could (and likely will) create a separate guide on mindfully managing change. It’s also something that every one of us has lived through, so we all are aware of its ability to spur conflict. I’m sure any of us could come up with a handful of stories from our own history to that effect, so I don’t want to spend an excessive amount of time here. Still, a couple important points rise to the surface when considering change and conflict.
First, the nature of a particular change doesn’t have to be dramatic to cause conflict. Sometimes what seems like no big deal to members of a team is met with harsh resistance by others. In these cases, personality differences emerge, and underlying emotions can come to a head. Clear communication and trust become even more important.
Second, while change can be difficult, it’s also constant. Every industry is changing; competitors and customers are changing; small and large trends are changing. In fact, many things are changing with increasing speed. Learning how to embrace and work with it is our best hope for success in the future.
Raise your hand if you’ve had a coworker you just didn’t like.
**Everyone raises hand.**
It’s just as inevitable as eventually having conflict with someone. We’re all different and some people just rub one another in the wrong way. Relationships in any environment come with unique challenges, and the pressures of work can feel like just one more thing added on. And unlike our friends, we don’t always get to choose our coworkers — thus we end up spending most of our day around people with personalities, value systems, and worldviews different from our own.
Conflicts related to interpersonal relationships aren’t always reserved for the people you dislike from the start. What might begin as a positive relationship can turn sour due to outside forces -- a friend getting a promotion you think you deserve.
Disagreements and tension at work can arise from conflict outside of work when people fail to separate the two environments. I once lived with a coworker (bad idea), which changed the dynamic of our relationship and affected us at work and at home. It didn’t take long for others in the office to notice the tension, either. Eventually, we stopped talking almost completely as the tension rose to such high levels. Working on projects together was not an enjoyable experience for either of us. Looking back, poor communication definitely contributed to our rift. Lesson learned.
Two coworkers dating can also become a cause for conflict or unease between others in the office. It often becomes worse if the relationship ends. Romantic relationships are even more dangerous when between bosses and their direct reports, and are prohibited in many workplaces. And let’s not mention “secret” relationships that seem to always blow up for everyone involved. Bad news all around.
Sometimes conflict is more nefarious than simple human differences. Sometimes it crosses a line.
Whether it’s seemingly inconsequential rude comments or remarks (bullying) or as serious as sexual harassment, it’s a real problem and needs to be addressed in all cases. Unfortunately, and as we’ve seen come to light recently, workplace harassment is far too common today. The tools I offer in this guide can offer momentary help to those experiencing harassment, but they are not designed for use as a long-term solution.
No jokes or memes here. Let’s all do our part to end harassment in the workplace. If you’re being harassed or if you witness harassment, report it. Visit the EEOC website for more information.
We all have lives outside of work (I hope). Those lives can impact how we bring ourselves to the workplace every day. Stress at home can affect our moods; lack of sleep affects our performance and how we treat others.
While these factors often cannot be controlled by a work leader, they are very real and can have a tremendous impact on a work environment. It’s also important that both manager and employee take them into account on a day-to-day basis to work to reduce their influence.
In fact, Gallup notes that employees are most engaged when their managers invest in them as a whole person, opening dialogue about both work and personal life. The key, they report, is that people feel safe to be open about any subject in their lives.
Consequences of Workplace Conflict
We’ve established that workplace conflict is inevitable. (Even for solopreneurs. I get into arguments with myself on a daily basis.) Its impact can be diverse and deeply felt throughout an organization, especially when it goes unchecked. What happens when conflict strikes?
Awesome Work from a Well-Rounded Team
Yes, conflict can be beneficial (you’re a little surprised I’d say this, aren’t you?). A workplace of yes-men or lemmings wouldn’t ever come up with a creative idea and would instead agree with everything their bosses say.
Examples of success despite (and sometimes because of) conflict can be found in some of the most iconic co-founder stories: Steve Jobs/Steve Wozniak and Bill Gates/Paul Allen. In each case, they learned to push each other to get the best product made.
I’ve had coworkers who seemed to have it out during creative brainstorming or planning meetings, and then went for beers together after work. While that type of relationship might turn off many people, it worked for them. They were able to compartmentalize differences (key to resolving conflict, as we’ll see) to only the things they disagreed about, respected each other for wanting to do the right thing, and afterward could remain close friends. I think that in many ways they knew the other helped them to see things they wouldn’t have seen otherwise. They were both good at their jobs and their unique perspectives added to the team’s ability to produce creative work.
It turns out that a little conflict might be the best way for learning to take place: AI researchers are even programming bots to learn through arguing amongst each other.
Individual differences can also be additive outside of a one-to-one relationship, and ultimately make a team more well-rounded. As an example, you and I might butt heads due to differing communication styles. You might be more direct than I like. However, your particular style might resonate well with a potential client, helping us to make an important sale. In this case, the difference led to success for the company.
This is also true for personality types. Many workplaces now use measurements like DiSC and Myers-Briggs to better understand the people they’re bringing on board. These tests can help us not only gain information about ourselves — how we see the world and how others see us — but also to understand how we can better be seen by others.
While I might be a details-oriented person, I’m able to tailor my approach for a coworker who relies much more on intuition if I know his natural style. These personality tools are helpful so that we can hire people NOT like us, rather than the opposite. A team of all analytical thinkers is going to have a much narrower worldview than one with a healthy balance of creativity and optimism to go with the skeptics.
In all of these cases, conflict is an additive feature. You can probably come up with many more examples (and not just in the workplace) of conflict leading to a more positive outcome. The trick is learning how to hire or manage a team (and yourself) toward positive conflict. Remember, it’s going to happen, so we can take aim at making it work for us.
Workplace disengagement is a scourge on business, and our lives in general, today. Arguably, it was the primary motivation for the launch of Golden Bristle. I fundamentally believe that engaged, passionate people will work toward causes that bring a positive impact to the world. Disengagement doesn’t just cost money in lost time, it costs us our happiness and the meaning we derive from work.
Unfortunately, disengagement is extremely widespread today. According to Gallup, upwards of 70% of workers are disengaged. They have higher rates of absenteeism, presenteeism (they show up but don’t do anything), higher healthcare costs and actively create a toxic work environment for everyone else. If two-thirds of our workers are actively rooting against our success, we don’t have a very good chance of succeeding.
Conflict turns out to be a major contributor to disengagement, for good reason.
Many employees’ natural response to a domineering boss is to stop trying. This is natural, after all. Our brains are designed to conserve energy (emotional, mental, etc.) to avoid depletion. When we’re continually shut down by others, no matter their place in the chain of command, we learn to avoid engagement. We stop giving ideas. We stop raising our hand. We keep our heads down and shut up.
When we stop contributing, we stop helping our company grow. Disengagement costs U.S. companies up to $600 billion annually, when all costs are considered.
A disengaged employee is only a half-step away from becoming a former employee. Once we feel like our contribution isn’t recognized or appreciated, we’re much more likely to consider taking our talents elsewhere. This, too, is a normal response. We’re driven to find a sense of purpose and fulfill it in our work. That’s why I challenge all of my clients to define their Why and measure whether their employer aligns with it.
High turnover can be a business killer. The Center for American Progress estimates that the cost of replacing an employee can range from 16 percent of annual salary for low-wage jobs to 213 percent of annual salary for executive positions. SHRM pegs estimates at 50-75 percent of annual salary. No matter what, it’s expensive — in dollars, time and speed. You’re losing not only production while the position is empty, but time for training, and institutional knowledge post-hire.
While employee turnover is a reality for all businesses (some employers even say they want their employees to grow enough to leave and do something on their own), turnover due to conflict is almost entirely preventable and should be mitigated whenever possible. A high turnover rate is almost guaranteed to indicate a high rate of disengagement, which means costs overflowing on all sides.
When I tell people I offer mindfulness services to businesses, by far the most common response I get is related to stress. It’s an all-too-common occurrence in our lives today. In fact, about 44 percent of people say persistent stress and excessive anxiety are a normal part of their day (and that number is growing every year). Stress is the number one cause of long-term sickness globally, and work is the number one source of stress in America, according to the APA.
People report stress causing a negative impact on their workplace performance, on their relationships with peers and superiors, and on their personal life -- particularly relationships with loved ones.
The costs of stress? Upwards of $300 billion annually through absenteeism, diminished productivity, employee turnover and direct medical, legal and insurance fees.
Work relationships are commonly cited as one as a top-three cause of workplace stress. That isn't the bronze medal you want to receive.
It’s not enough that conflict can create a bad day or impact our desire to go to work. When stress becomes an everyday occurrence, it can have negative effects on our behaviors and overall health. People who report high stress at work say it affects their eating habits, sleep patterns, and weight. What’s worse, chronic stress is a destructive force on our bodies. The stress hormone Cortisol — while helpful in acute stress situations when the ‘fight or flight’ response is triggered — actually shrinks the learning and memory centers of our brains and increases our risk of cardiac disease. Make no mistake: Chronic stress is a killer.
And stress isn’t the only health concern for those in toxic work environments. Violence at work accounts for about 15 percent of all violent crimes in the US. You may never think this could affect you or your employees but why ever take the risk?
I heard a figure recently that blew my mind. Medical errors — measurable and preventable mistakes by healthcare professionals — cost more than $17 billion each year. I’ve also heard rumors about the high cost of code errors by developers at tech companies — something like $300 million each year for Google. You might ask me how those are related to employee conflict. My answer is this: If we know conflict is a tremendous source of stress and we know stress affects sleeping patterns and engagement, it’s only logical that those two will add up to employees not doing their jobs to their fullest potential. That includes making unnecessary errors. And workplaces that communicate effectively, both in terms of expectations and personal issues, will naturally produce fewer mistakes.
Humans aren’t machines but we are paid to do our jobs, and when we don’t, money is lost. Unfortunately, it isn’t only money that’s lost; mistakes can lead to injuries by workers (or in the case above, put patients at risk). Employee injuries due to high stress, inattention, poor process or other issues can carry with them high costs. At hospitals, injuries cost about $331,000 per year for every 100 employees. For airline companies, that number is more than $285,000. Big numbers all around.
At the end of the day, it comes down to this: Conflict is here to stay and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. When it’s productively harnessed, it can improve a business and relationships. When conflict is dealt with poorly, however, the consequences can be costly.
How NOT to Deal with Conflict
We all know how easy it can be to just avoid something we don’t want to deal with. That nosy neighbor we check for before leaving our house. Tedious assignments with looming deadlines. And, of course, that coworker who just made an offensive statement.
The trouble is, despite how easy avoidance can be, it doesn’t help to remedy conflict. In fact, in many ways, it makes it worse. When we’re upset about something and hold it in, it’s in our nature to continue to return to it mentally, with increasing intensity, until it spills into our daily actions. Sometimes we turn to passive aggressive statements or actions toward the offender. Sometimes we turn the frustration inward and blame ourselves for whatever we’re feeling. Sometimes we just stop doing our work.
I already referenced the brief time I lived with a coworker but it’s especially relevant here. She and I had different habits and differing viewpoints that only became clear once we spent time together at home. Minor annoyances that were relatively easy to deal with at the onset felt much larger once other problems were exposed. And the more each of us let things go undiscussed, the harder it became to address any one of them. By the time we moved out, our relationship was strained so badly that we barely talked at home or at work. Others in our office could see the tension and it affected everyone. Avoidance was a major contributor.
Nobody ever grew up wanting to be a yes-man. We all seek to make a positive contribution, which means that sometimes we need to challenge the world around us — our peers, our leaders, or societal norms. But when we find ourselves in toxic environments, work or otherwise, we can begin to feel that compliance is the only path to safety.
Aggressive bosses and bullies get their way because people around them allow it. A culture of fear is self-reinforcing and the conflict it creates never ceases.
If you find yourself choosing compliance, first ask yourself, “Why?” Why am I saying yes to this directive, agreeing to take on this work, participating in this environment that causes me stress? Then other questions may arise. Do I want to continue down this path? What is the cost — to me and to others? Is it worth it?
Bullying or Aggressiveness
In so many ways, we all know it’s wrong to bully others or push them around so we can get what we want. And yet, bullying is a common occurrence not only in our workplaces but in nearly every environment in our lives — from television to sports to politics. A study by the University of Phoenix found that 75% of people have witnessed bullying in the workplace and nearly half of people have been bullied first-hand.
I get it. It’s easy to assert our power over another person when we have it. It “gets the job done” and is usually effective in ensuring compliance. Fear is a powerful motivator. But it isn’t the most effective motivator if your goal is to create a workplace of engaged, dependable, passionate employees working toward a larger purpose. (That’s why we all go to work, right?) Fear will only get you so far. And we already know the high costs of stress on both our business and our health.
If you find yourself being aggressive to win an argument, remember the consequences. It’s just not worth it.
Sometimes we try so hard not to hurt another person’s feelings that our feedback becomes unhelpful. We tiptoe around issues with sweeping generalizations instead of addressing them head-on. This comes in phrases like, “Your presentation could use a little more pizzazz” instead of “Your introduction needs a specific story to hook me and the conclusion asked for the sale too early.”
The second sentence gives me information I can work with, while the first leaves me searching for whatever you mean by 'pizzazz'.
In general, specifics help when conflict arises because it gives both parties something concrete to address.
We can also overgeneralize when addressing behavior, expanding one small action into something we view as a larger, ongoing problem. Raise your hand if you’ve used the phrase “You always act like this” or “Why can’t you ever…”.
Conflicts can drag on and on when the parties involved don’t stick to the problem at hand. Let’s say, for example, that you’re upset I didn’t follow up with a client quickly enough to address an issue. That’s an action we can address. If you instead tell me I never follow up with clients quickly enough, I can’t help but be defensive. I couldn’t possibly be excessively late on every occasion, and if my work is so subpar, why haven’t you addressed it previously?
Giving feedback that’s overly generalized can elevate conflicts to unnecessary levels; stick to being prompt and detailed.
I used to hate showing my work to others, especially before I thought it was perfect (it was never perfect). So much of my identity and ego were attached to what I produced that I was afraid of any negative feedback. And when it came, I’d react with defensiveness, often in the form of excuses. Needless to say, I learned and improved much more slowly than I would have if I had been open to all feedback that came my way.
To be defensive in the face of criticism is a natural response, especially if we care deeply about our work. Our egos tell us we are what we do, so if our work is subpar it means we’re subpar as a person. That’s simply untrue. Our work is our work and we are separate from it.
When we react defensively to feedback, we also teach others we don’t want to get better. When we attack them, we make them less likely to offer help in the future because they need to protect themselves. We all know how frustrating it is to continue to hear the same problems over and over from a friend who refuses to take our advice or only offers excuses for their behaviors.
Defensiveness might feel like it protects us, but all it really does it stifle our growth and separate us from the outside world. It is unhelpful in nearly every situation.
Mindfully Managing Conflict is Key to Future Success
What does mindfulness have to do with conflict? Well, nearly everything. It can be the difference between a moment of tension leading to a creative breakthrough or splitting up two promising business owners. How we react on a moment-to-moment basis makes all the difference.
As we explore the things to avoid when dealing with conflict -- avoidance, aggressiveness, defensiveness, etc. -- we begin to see a pattern emerge. When we resort to those behaviors, often it’s a reaction we haven’t considered fully. In our brains, that reaction is driven by our amygdala and limbic system, primitive parts of our brain sometimes called our “Lizard Brain,” that become triggered when we feel threatened.
Mindfulness helps us escape those reactive tendencies and instead choose how we’re going to respond. We gain freedom from our instinctual patterns.
As we step outside of these patterns and the negative cycles they create, we can elevate our work -- growing as individuals and as a team, focused on how we can work together to achieve our goals. We can choose to use our differences as additive benefits, not the other way around.
Employees come up with more creative solutions when they communicate openly. They’re more engaged when they feel safe and appreciated. As stress is reduced, they can come to work with better health and more energy to do work they care about.
Mindfully managing conflict is, in many ways, a tremendous competitive advantage.
What is Mindfulness?
Let’s take a step back and make sure we’ve covered our bases when it comes to mindfulness. I’d like to tell you what I mean when I use the term and offer an opportunity to explore it a little deeper.
Mindfulness is a way of being with ourselves and the world. I define it as such:
Being aware of what's going on — in our minds, in our bodies and around us — and accepting it without trying to change it.
There is a lot in there, so let's break it down. There are two aspects to mindful awareness:
- Paying attention to the present moment — in our minds, bodies and environment
- Accepting each moment as it is, without judgment
When we’re attuned to what’s happening in each moment, we’re able to see things as they are. We can become aware of a hurtful thought that crosses our minds. We notice our chest tightening when someone we clash with begins talking. We can pick up on body movement cues from someone across the table.
Once we have mindful awareness, we have a choice. We can decide how to proceed next: Will it be out of malice or fear? Or will it be with a sense of compassion and equanimity?
As we learn to become more acutely aware of these moments, we notice things we hadn’t before. We notice that emotions arise without our control. We notice that others get upset, just as we do. We notice that a lot of things happen in the outside world that we can’t influence in the slightest. And in that learning comes a sense of acceptance. A release of judgment or need to try to exert control over so much of what’s around and inside us. If I get butterflies before every public speech, it doesn’t do me much good to judge myself for it. A more helpful choice is to learn to view my butterflies as a good thing, a confirmation that I’m alive and care to do my best.
The key lies in an idea that can be difficult to digest: Trying to change what’s going on right now will very likely drive us crazy. If it’s raining outside and I want it to be sunny, choosing to remain upset about the rain doesn’t get me very far. It’s still raining and the universe isn’t going to change for me. The more quickly and easily I can let it go, the better off I am.
Mindfulness gives us space between what we think or what happens to us, and how we respond. Without that space, we’re subject to repeating the patterns of old -- reacting to conflict by creating more conflict. We’re also subject to believing every thought that enters our minds without questioning it, no matter how much we know it isn’t true.
(Negative thoughts are the most harmful for us to believe without space for reflection. And most of the time they only take a moment to disprove completely. Remember this the next time your inner critic insists you’ve never done anything right in your life. You at least remembered to breathe on a regular basis, or else you wouldn’t be here!)
Learning to step back from the story that’s running in our minds and consider it with a degree of scrutiny is an important ingredient in living mindfully, and can be a most useful tool as we work to manage conflict.
We can use mindfulness to approach any situation in our lives — alone or with others. We don’t have to wait for conflict to arise to be mindful of a moment. In fact, if we can act with an acute understanding of the needs of ourselves and others when things aren’t heated, we might even learn to prevent conflicts before they start.
Still, that won’t happen every time. We’re human. So our next best option is to practice mindfully managing conflict when it comes.
How to Mindfully Manage Workplace Conflict
Mindfulness helps us to develop skill in three core areas — presence, openness, and compassion.
When I’m more aware of the present moment, I’m more present to it both in my mind and body. As I learn to stay present and accept things as they are, I also learn to remain open to what’s occurring — in myself, in others and in the world around me. And the more I’m open, the more I see that much of what we experience is universal. Others experience pain just as I do. We all have hopes and dreams that may or may not come. I learn to have compassion for myself and extend that feeling toward others around me.
These skills are useful in everyday life — the chaos of home life with kids or a partner, in our communities with people of different backgrounds — and in our workplace. With them, we’re better able to relate to whatever is happening at any time.
Embracing a more mindful life will help us to an even greater extent during conflict as we learn to remain even-tempered and keep the bigger picture in mind. After all, most employees in any company have the same universal goals:
- They want the company to succeed
- They want to work with people who share their values and vision
- They want to get along with their coworkers
- They want to do good work and be recognized for it
- They want to support their families and go home happy at the end of the day
If we’re able to consider these universal goals in the midst of conflict, we’re much more likely to approach the situation with the intention of resolving it without harm. Mindfully resolving conflict can require any number of approaches, which can be developed through practice and exercise.
Ask most employees what separates a good boss from a poor boss and they’ll give you the same answer: A good boss listens. They ask how I’m doing and they care what I have to say. They stop to look me in the eye. They’re present.
The first skill we develop in our mindfulness practice is that of presence. We train our minds to remain attuned to the present moment, rather than time traveling to past events or future imaginings. We’re no longer replaying past conversations or creating future scenarios (that will never occur). Instead, we give ourselves space to see what’s actually going on around and within us as it happens.
When we’re present with ourselves and others, we can gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of any moment, helping us to act with greater discernment. After all, this moment, right now, is all we have.
Example: I arrive at the office one morning late. I’m feeling rushed because I had to deal with something unexpected at home and traffic was heavy during my commute. One of my employees comes to me with a question shortly after I walk in — something important but not necessarily urgent. How do I respond?
If I’m not present, I might be abrupt or short-tempered. I might tell her I’m too busy to deal with it right now. Or I might feel compelled to give a thoughtless response because I feel guilty about my tardiness. In any case, I’m reacting to what’s gone on this morning so far, not to her present need.
If I am present, I can take a moment to settle before I answer. I might recognize that her question is important enough that I’ll wait until I have more time to think, delivering that message with kindness. Or, I can clear my head and respond in a helpful way. Either way, I am present to her, her needs, and to the stuff I’m bringing to our interaction.
Exercise: Mindfulness Meditation
Mindfulness meditation is our bedrock practice. It’s simple, yet not easy. It’s accessible: It can be done almost anywhere, almost anytime. With this practice, we learn to anchor our mind to the present moment through our breath. As we breathe, we’re reminded that we’re here now. Our minds are constantly working and yet they can be here now. As we sit with ourselves for longer periods of time, we begin to see ourselves more clearly, to identify thought patterns, to understand our emotions at a deeper level and to become more comfortable with the uncertainties that life brings us.
How to Apply Presence
When conflict starts, our first reactions might be to run from it or force our way through. Using presence means recognizing when those tendencies (or others) come up and choosing to remain in the present moment. Take a breath and proceed.
Commit to being present to everyone involved, as well. Understand their need to be heard (there are multiple sides to any situation) and honor it. For an exercise that will help develop this skill, check the Awareness of Others section below.
Lastly, if tensions are too high in this moment, speak up and suggest that everyone take a timeout. Commit to a time and place you’ll pick up on the discussion again, once things have calmed down. Don’t leave things open-ended or you’ll risk never addressing the conflict appropriately.
Developing presence allows us to then choose whether we remain open to our lives or close off. Remaining open means learning to accept things as they are. We may not like them — feeling or witnessing pain is difficult, as are people who challenge us — but we can learn not to shut down when they come.
The universe often changes in ways we wish it wouldn’t. It rains on days we’ve planned a picnic or family barbecue. Other people do things we wish they didn't. That’s why I’m writing this guide. If we all thought and acted the exact same, we might be conflict free for a while. Or we might get tired of everyone being just like us and create conflict out of boredom, for attention or just to be different. I don’t know. What I do know is that learning to stay open to the reality that other people are different from us — with different opinions, habits, behaviors, and tastes — helps all of us to live happier, less stressful, more productive lives.
The moment we believe we know all the answers is the moment we stop growing and offering our best selves to the world. None of us knows what’s going to happen next or why many things exist as they do. When we’re open to this truth, we see there is a lot for us to learn, and ample opportunity to provide grace to ourselves and others.
Exercise: Just Like Me
The secret to remaining open to the differences in others is remembering that, in so many ways, we’re all the same. Our similarities absolutely dwarf our individual differences. And while it’s easy to remain caught up in what divides us, we can always take a moment to come back to what unites us. The Just Like Me exercise helps us do just that. It’s a tool for recalling everything we share with another person — a physical body, thoughts, painful experiences, the desire to be happy and healthy, and more — so that we can get back in touch with our common humanity. So that we can be open to their needs when they communicate them (and sometimes when they don’t). Finally, so that we can learn to extend compassion at all times.
How to Apply Openness
Once we’re committed to being present to both ourselves and others involved in our conflict, the next step is to be open to what occurs. During any conflict, you might see strong emotions emerge from at least one participant. If you’re experiencing anger, fear or any other strong emotion, remember that your emotions exist to provide you with important information about what’s going on. Notice if any feelings of shame or guilt come up connected to these emotions and remind yourself that you’re allowed to feel whatever it is you’re feeling. Communicate your feelings in a non-judgmental, non-accusatory way: “I felt uncomfortable hearing the jokes Jim made today. I am concerned it makes a poor impression on our new employees and don’t feel they align with our company values.”
Others have the same right as you to feel and express whatever comes up for them. Remember their thoughts are real to them, just as yours are to you. Listen closely, without interruption, to what they have to say. Notice your desire to interrupt and what you’re rejecting. Mirror back what they tell you to make sure you understand: “What I hear you saying is that you felt I threw you under the bus, blaming you for the error we made last week. When that happened, you felt angry and betrayed. Is that correct?"
The goal here is to get everything out on the table. If we hide our own thoughts or push aside the thoughts of the other person, we’ll never be able to address the core of our conflict.
As we become more present and open to our lives — our thoughts, our emotions, the good and bad in the world around us — empathy and compassion naturally begin to emerge. This compassion may first arise directed towards ourselves. We witness our own suffering and want to relieve it. And then it begins to extend outward to others. Why? We begin to see that we all experience pleasurable and painful events. That we all hope for good in our lives.
We can look at our own actions and see that when we react with anger or frustration towards another person, it’s often a result of feeling pain, either emotional or physical. It isn’t that we want to hurt them, yet in the moment acting out feels like the best choice. We’re in pain and we want it to stop. Then when someone reacts with anger towards us, if we’re present enough to make space and open ourselves to their humanity, we see they are acting to relieve their own pain. They want it to stop, just like us. And we choose compassion instead of violence in return. It’s natural. We just have to practice.
This is an ancient meditation aimed at cultivating compassion, benevolence, and goodwill within us. It’s been shown to improve positive affect and decrease anxiety, improve emotion regulation, increase feelings of social connection and decrease bias toward others. Former Google engineer and author of Joy on Demand, Chade-Meng Tan, offers this practice as a way for anyone to get out of a funk. He challenges them to spend just 10 seconds of their day wishing happiness for anyone who walks by their office, guaranteeing they’ll be smiling by the end. Try 10 seconds every hour to have the best day of your life.
When we practice lovingkindness, we imagine people standing in front of us (starting with ourselves) and we wish them happiness, health and other forms of goodwill. We progressively work toward people we have more challenges with in our lives, then wish goodwill on larger groups and eventually on all sentient beings.
How to Apply Compassion
We begin by expressing compassion for ourselves. We wish for ourselves to accept everything we think or feel, understanding that it’s perfectly natural and nothing is wrong with us. We want negative feelings -- pain or sadness -- to pass as quickly as possible. We want positive feelings to last, and it can be difficult when they don’t.
The days we’re not operating at our best can be difficult. Practicing good self-care, though, sets a positive example for those around us. Being compassionate with ourselves means knowing when we need to rest and allowing ourselves to do it.
Once we see the humanity in ourselves, we recognize it more in others, extending our hand to help. Maybe we notice that our coworker who just had a baby is running ragged and we offer to hop in with a tedious task. Or maybe we just take a second to stop and ask how they’re doing, really giving our attention and energy to listen.
Those of us in leadership positions should be having regular one-on-one communication with our employees. Each encounter is an opportunity to check in and connect on a personal level, pick up on any needs they have, and offer opportunities to help them heal or grow. The simple act of scheduling a regular meeting and discussing both work and person life is a top factor in creating engaged employees. Leading with compassion doesn’t mean being a pushover; it means being a human.
The Mindful Leader
As our mindfulness skills increase, we naturally grow in our abilities to lead -- to set a vision and align others to move towards it. Once again, our position or title has no bearing on this, as what really matters is the positive change we’re able to make. The Mindful Leader is poised to succeed in the future, as technology accelerates the pace of change and connecting with others becomes even more vital for success.
The three core skills mindfulness develops build on each other and create our foundation for being. From there, we grow the skills demonstrated by Mindful Leaders — self-awareness, awareness of others and focus on what’s important.
Self-awareness is the keystone that unlocks our potential to resolve all conflict, now and going forward.
Before we can address others about an issue or conflict we’re experiencing, it’s important that we’re aware of our own thoughts, feelings, biases, and motivations.
For example, if I disagree with my boss’ decision to include another person on a project, it’s important for me to identify the source of that resistance. Perhaps I’m feeling threatened because I’m viewing it as a symbol my boss doesn’t trust me to complete the project on my own. Perhaps I’ve had conflicts with the other person in the past and my mind is running in anticipation of more fights in the future. Perhaps I don’t think the person is a good fit because of their skillset. Whatever it is, I need to see it if I want to help resolve the conflict.
Practicing the skills of presence to my thoughts and emotions, openness to what’s happening and the compassion toward myself for feeling whatever I’m feeling will help me grow more self-aware over time.
The SBNRR exercise is a cornerstone of Google’s Search Inside Yourself program. It stands for Stop, Breathe, Notice, Reflect, Respond. It’s vital to helping create space during emotionally charged moments, teaching us how to take a moment before reacting spontaneously.
The key skills we begin to develop with this exercise are twofold: 1. To recognize when we become emotionally triggered. In those moments — when we’re fighting to keep our lizard brains from taking over — we find our greatest opportunity for self-learning. As we become more adept at recognizing these moments, we’re better able to actually stop and breathe before continuing. This leads to 2. Noticing and looking deeper at the cause of our emotional response. What are we telling ourselves in this moment — in our minds and bodies? Is there a storyline we were unaware of? Does anything change as we breathe?
We can practice the SBNRR technique anytime, as we can call to mind emotional moments, and with practice, we’ll end up deploying it as a tool without thinking.
How to Apply Self-Awareness
The self-aware leader, first and foremost, is present with whatever she brings with her into a moment. It isn’t an ability we can perfect -- we’re always changing and learning -- but it is something we can intend to practice anytime.
Learning to live with more self-awareness means to live with a constant curiosity, asking ourselves what is happening right now, at this moment. We apply it by simply learning to see what’s there.
An example: During a negotiation, a self-aware leader understands what outcome she wants to achieve and her motivations for wanting that outcome. She is able to recognize her own emotional responses as they come up -- anger, excitement or otherwise -- and use that knowledge to help her decision making. And when she is run by her emotions for a period of time, she learns to let them go, make any necessary amends and get back to the issue at hand.
Awareness of Others
As we become more aware of ourselves — of what arises within us from moment to moment — other insights begin to emerge. Specifically, we notice that others experience what we experience. We recognize the universal connections all humans share — hopes, dreams, love and fear, pain, excitement, all of it. We might even see ourselves in others, them in us.
When we’re aware of others (and aware of any conflicting factors within ourselves), we’re able to see what helps to bring out the best in our employees. We can match their skills with their role, help them both understand their contributions and grow to reach greater success. We can take different perspectives, thinking beyond the experiences we bring and valuing what others have to offer. We can read a room, gauging from moment to moment the group’s emotional state. (This isn’t magic, though others might think it is. Commitment to getting better is required.)
Exercise: Mindful Listening
Imagine talking with someone and knowing they’re giving you their full, undivided attention. That they’re open to everything you offer. That there is no need to speed up to get your point across because they’re not competing to make theirs. That you can be exactly who you are with pride.
(This is instead of them looking over your shoulder at who just walked in the room, checking their phone, finishing your sentences, interrupting to share their opinion or speaking over you to make a point. Really, who wants that?)
The Mindful Listening exercise offers just that to you and a partner. You’ll each have an opportunity to practice listening with your full attention to the other person. You won’t even need to give nods or sounds of affirmation if that’s how you choose to proceed. It can be as simple as pure, open space to hear what they have to say.
To take this out of the practice room, try the technique with a friend or loved one without letting them know. See if they notice a difference in your presence (they’ll probably say something).
How to apply Awareness of Others
When I first started doing Mindful Leadership workshops and lunch & learns, I was struck by the answer I received nearly every time I asked people to share good examples of leaders demonstrating awareness of others. The answers were nearly verbatim, “When they see me, they ask how I’m doing and they actually care what my answer is. They listen.”
Whoa. That’s all it takes to be a great leader? To stop and listen (and care)?
It’s tough to see others’ perspectives during times of conflict. After all, if they would just see things from our viewpoint, the conflict wouldn’t exist. But as leaders, it’s our responsibility to meet others where they are and find space for middle ground.
Think about it, have you ever changed someone’s mind by just repeating your opinion over and over without hearing theirs? I suspect the answer is no.
I’ve found that the leaders who show the highest level of awareness of others also demonstrate proficiency in the three core areas of mindfulness: They’re present to themselves and others, whatever is happening in the moment; they’re open to what is present, even if it’s uncomfortable for them; they exude compassion for everyone involved. They understand that everyone is doing their best in that moment, based on whatever their capacities are.
This stuff isn’t easy. It takes practice. And the best practice is a combination of practicing on our own and living it in the real world. We apply this skill by taking a breath when a difficult emotion arises in us or in someone else, by reflecting before we answer a challenging question, by choosing to remain open to what others have to say even if we disagree.
Focus on What’s Important
When a group becomes mired in conflict, it’s easy to lose sight of what’s important. (No, it’s not about everyone else admitting you’re right.) Remember: One team, one dream. There is a reason the conflict started and very likely there is a decision waiting to be made about how to move forward best. That’s what’s important.
The Mindful Leader recognizes when things have gone off-track and makes moves to get both themselves and the group back in the right direction. In this sense, there are two important aspects to the ability to focus on what’s important:
- Identifying what’s important
- Actually being able to get our monkey minds to pay attention to #1
The second part is much more critical when applied to our daily work tasks — finishing that report or presentation instead of checking email (like I just mindlessly did 5 minutes ago). That’s a little outside our scope here, so we’ll leave it for another day, though it’s covered extensively in the Mindful Leader Program.
OK, so how do we know what’s important when we’re in conflict? We take a step back. We remember why we’re here in the first place: why we exist, what mission we’re serving, and how we live that mission through our values. We take a look at the bigger picture to help straighten out the little picture.
Exercise: Identify your Why
We’re going to limit this exercise to refocusing on the goals of the organization. We'll assume your company has a mission and values. (If you’re looking for help discovering your personal or organizational Why, let’s talk.) It’s time to take those out and re-read them. How are they written? Are they actionable? Are they concrete? Are you certain about what they mean?
Gather the folks involved in the conflict and give them two pieces of paper: One with the mission and values printed on it, the other blank. On the blank paper, ask them to write four things:
- A concrete example of what it means to live out each of the values
- Which of the values they believe their conflict/issue is most closely related to
- How they’re living true to this value from their own perspective
- How this ties into the company’s broader mission and vision
Once complete, have them alternative reading their responses aloud. Then, each one will restate the other person’s perspective, starting with the phrase “What I hear you saying is…” and confirming whether they are hearing correctly or if additional clarification is necessary. Once things are clarified, encourage them to ask questions of each other wherever they still feel confused.
This process will create the space for your team to get back to what’s important — the impact you’re making on the world — rather than staying stuck in right vs. wrong.
How to Apply Focus on What’s Important
How many of your employees could recite your Why? Your values? Do they mean anything to anyone?
We apply this skill from the ground up and the top down. (That sounds like such business-speak but I promise it means something.)
Top-down means your leaders live the company’s vision (Why) and values every day. Southwest founder Herb Kelleher famously sat in the last row on flights and served drinks to passengers while he was CEO. That’s commitment to customer service. Bottom-up means finding small ways to reinforce your vision and values to all employees. Celebrate them, display them as art, use them as cheers. Teach in practical ways what it means to live according to your Why.
In times of conflict, we trust that the work we’ve done on the frontend carries over, that everyone at least knows why you’re all there in the first place, what you’re trying to accomplish. We can’t assume we’ll get 100 percent buy-in from all employees — that takes effort and time — but a strong vision from a team’s leaders can bring people back to the mission at hand. The key is to apply our foundational skills — self-awareness to know when you’ve strayed off the path and awareness of others to know when someone else is lost — so you can corral the conversation back to good.
Worst case, your mission is written in huge type on the wall and you take your team over to read it. One team, one dream.
Gratitude and Thanks
It’s almost impossible to exaggerate the power of gratitude and appreciation in both preventing and managing conflict (at home and work). Study after study shows the power that regular practice in manifesting and expressing gratitude has on our lives -- to decrease depression, increase happiness, improve health and empower relationships.
It’s far easier to want to peacefully resolve conflict with someone we appreciate than someone we resent.
Unfortunately, our brains are hardwired toward negativity. (That used to come in handy when we had to remember not to eat berries from that bush that poisoned our friend.) The world today has far fewer dangers in it, yet our hardware hasn’t caught up. It’s on us to make positive conditioning a habit.
Exercise: Daily Gratitude Journal
Get a notebook (one that you love). Write Gratitude Journal on the front cover. Every day, write down three things you’re grateful for. Even better, answer these 5 questions to change your life.
Why? To quote Qui-Gon Jinn, “Your focus determines your reality.”
When we learn to focus our minds on the good things in our lives, on being and having enough, on cultivating a sense of gratitude for living, we teach our minds and bodies to seek it out. When we do the opposite, we teach the opposite. Dwelling on the negative begets negativity.
And Dr. Dan Baker backs this up in his book, What Happy People Know, saying "During active appreciation, the threatening messages from your amygdala [fear center of the brain] and the anxious instincts of your brainstem are cut off, suddenly and surely, from access to your brain’s neocortex...It is a fact of neurology that the brain cannot be in a state of appreciation and a state of fear at the same time.”
Start your day with gratitude, end it with gratitude and look for reasons to thank others in the middle. It’ll change your world.
How to Apply Gratitude and Thanks
Start a “kudos board” at your workplace. The game is simple: Challenge every person to leave a thank you note for someone on the team once per week. Post them publicly and proudly. The people who have given and received the most notes after a month receive a special bonus or reward.
The key: Thank you notes have to be specific. No “Thanks for your contribution” in this game. Specificity matters for the giver and receiver — it helps us to focus on what matters to our work and it reinforces acts that help the team. A good example: “Thanks, Dave. You stayed late to help me finish a big project last week. I would have had to come in early otherwise. You were a huge help and the work was better thanks to you.”
Be creative with your ideas, change up the game and call it what you want. The important thing is to focus on good deeds and reward them.
Becoming a master of mindfully managing conflict doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a lifelong journey. As our mindfulness practices teach us, each moment offers us a choice. Will we act with presence, openness and compassion, or will we choose differently? Will we practice self-awareness or hide from ourselves? What will we choose to focus on?
Choose one of the practices and start it today. Then as you become more comfortable, bring it to your team. Remember, real change starts within and leaders are at their best when they set an example.
When you find yourself in the middle of conflict, first take a breath. Create the space you need to think more clearly. As you practice any of these exercises, you’ll get better at catching yourself as you’re caught by an emotion.
Lastly, be generous in giving grace. Conflict is going to happen, no matter how mindful we are. You’re not perfect, your employees aren’t perfect, your clients aren’t perfect. That list goes on. So be patient as you look for positive change (including with yourself as you curse your lack of patience). Continue searching for small moments in everyday interactions to preemptively handle conflict when you can and mindfully manage it if it pops up.