The Art of the Difficult Conversation: Employee Disagreement in the Workplace

  • Posted on Apr 3, 2024

Employee disagreement in the workplace can be scary. Supervisors and leadership often try to avoid conflict because it conjures up negative connotations. Confrontations can become disagreeable, sometimes leading to shouting matches and hurt feelings.

Not all conflict, however, is destructive. A difference of opinion can spark innovation, but only if you’re willing to put avoidance aside and discuss issues head-on in the workplace.

How can you handle disagreement professionally?

Learn What Causes Employee Disagreement in the Workplace

Many factors in a workplace can cause disagreements between colleagues or between employees and managers. Employees report vexing situations like insufficient pay as frustrating. Other common triggers include:

  • Workload and deadlines: Tight deadlines, uneven task distribution, or feeling overloaded can lead to stress and burnout, making people more likely to snap or disagree with suggestions.
  • Communication issues: Misunderstandings, unclear expectations, or a lack of communication can lead to people working at cross purposes or feeling unheard, which can breed resentment and disagreements.
  • Work styles: People have different preferences for how they work. Some prefer a lot of collaboration, while others are more independent. These differing styles can clash, leading to disagreements about approaching tasks.
  • Personality clashes: Not everyone gets along perfectly. Strong personalities or differing values can lead to personality clashes, making it harder to find common ground and sparking disagreements.
  • Lack of resources: When there aren’t enough resources (like equipment, budget, or staff) to go around, people may compete for them, leading to disagreements about priorities and allocation.
  • Company culture: A company culture that is competitive, hierarchical, or disrespectful can create an environment where people are more likely to disagree and be defensive.

Understanding these common triggers can help individuals and workplaces take steps to mitigate them and create a more harmonious work environment.

Sometimes, that’s not enough. You have to have a difficult conversation.

3 Tips for Productive Workplace Conversations

Communication is a learned skill. Richard Branson calls communication “an art.” And like any art, you can learn techniques designed to improve your skills.

These three tips will get you started:

  1. Focus on “we” instead of “me” vs. “you.” Frame conversations as a collaborative effort to find a solution rather than assigning blame. Use phrases like “How can we move forward?” or “Let’s work together to find a solution that works for both of us.” This approach fosters a more positive atmosphere and encourages others to be receptive to your perspective.
  2. Listen actively. Pay attention to what the other person is saying verbally and nonverbally. Try to understand their viewpoint and feelings before responding. Get clarification and an then summarize what you hear to show you’re engaged and avoid misunderstandings.
  3. Challenge the issue, not the person. It’s easy to get caught up in emotions during a difficult conversation. However, stay focused on the problem rather than attacking the other person’s character. Use “I” statements to express your concerns, such as “I feel frustrated when…” to keep the conversation objective and solution-oriented.

How to Handle Difficult Conversations

Theory is grand, but what does the strategy for implementing it look like in practice?

These three common workplace confrontations might remind you of a chess game where the players take risks and make calculated moves to bring about a win — not for themselves but for the workplace.

Scenario 1: The Missed Deadline

Dave: Hi Anna, can we chat for a moment? I noticed the Jones report was due yesterday.

Sarah: (Flustered) Oh, hey, Dave. Yeah, I apologize; it completely slipped my mind. I’ll have it for you by the end of the day.

Dave: Thanks for letting me know, Anna. Deadlines are crucial for this project; missing them can impact other teams. In the future, if you foresee any challenges meeting a deadline, please communicate proactively. We can work together to adjust or re-delegate tasks to ensure everything stays on track.

Why This Works:

  • We, not You and Me: You emphasized working together to avoid future issues.
  • Active Listening: Dave gave Sarah a chance to explain without interrupting.
  • Issue-centered: Dave didn’t berate Sarah or call her incompetent. He addressed the missed deadline and its impact.

Scenario 2: The Micromanager

Kim: Okay, team, I wanted to review these marketing materials before sending them out. Can you move that image slightly to the left and maybe adjust the font size on the subheading?

Paul: (Internally rolling his eyes) Kim, we’ve reviewed these materials extensively and received your approval.

Kim: I understand, but getting everything right is important.

Donna (Team Lead): Thanks for the input, Kim. Paul has been spearheading this project and has a firm grasp of the marketing guidelines. Let’s trust his expertise and move forward with the materials as planned. However, we can reevaluate and reassess if anything major arises during the campaign.

Why This Works:

  • We, not You and Me: Donna acknowledged Kim’s concerns without diminishing Paul’s work and offered everyone the opportunity to revisit the materials.
  • Active Listening: Donna demonstrated trust in Paul’s abilities, boosting his confidence and motivation.
  • Issue-centered: Donna focused the conversation on moving the marketing materials forward.

Scenario 3: The Disruptive Co-worker

Mark: (Loudly on the phone) Seriously, they expect me to have this report done by tomorrow? That’s completely unreasonable!

Lisa: (Trying to concentrate) Mark, I understand how you feel. Please keep it down a bit. I’m trying to focus on my presentation.

Mark: (Scoffs) Look, everyone has their own deadlines to meet. Don’t take it personally.

Lisa: Mark, it’s essential to be mindful of our colleagues and maintain a professional work environment. Can we discuss this further during a break?

Why This Works:

  • We, not You and Me: Lisa opted to discuss the issue privately at a more appropriate time and included Mark in setting a time.
  • Active Listening: Lisa addressed the disruption Mark’s behavior is causing others.
  • Issue-centered: Lisa communicated the need for professional conduct.

Investing in Communication Skills Training

By consistently applying the principles for handling employee disagreement in the workplace, you’ll be well on your way to fostering a more open and productive work environment.

Leaders who master the art of difficult conversations not only address problems effectively but also build trust and psychological safety within their teams, leading to a more engaged and productive workforce.

Remember, confrontation can be a sign of a healthy workplace; it means that employees are passionate about their work. When handled with respect, focus, and a solution-oriented mindset, it can pave the way for a more harmonious and successful workplace for everyone involved.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *