5 Ways To Deal With Conflict Properly At Work

Before it’s the other side of noon, you have probably engaged in battle – outright or in your head– with your boss, a co-worker, or someone on your commute into work.

It’s really hard that we have to share this planet – and our workplace – with others. But we do. And since 90% of the battles we engage in are probably useless, how great would it be if we could save that energy for more constructive endeavours?

Sun Tsu, the ancient Chinese war strategist wrote some great stuff about waging war; his books are popular business school fodder. Recently I picked up The Art of War again and found interesting parallels between his military situations and the types of daily battles we wage constantly with friends, frenemies, partners, bosses and co-workers.

Since good conflict resolution skills are helpful in the workplace, marketplace, and at home, here are five rules from Sun Tsu’s military strategy that I have adopted for our modern day battles. 

1. The first rule of course is not to fight. Control your inner turmoil so that you don’t fight unnecessary wars. If you are not in danger do not fight a battle. Don’t launch a war simply out of anger or resentment. Take action only if it is to your advantage. Remember that people say outrageous, untrue, or un-researched things all the time. Don’t let any of that impact you. Let people say what they want, do what they want, and think what they want no matter how outlandish it is. Remember that their ineptitude is a much bigger liability to their life than to yours. Their liability impacts you only at this tiny point of contact; it impacts them every minute of every day. 

2. Don’t engage people in battle unless you know for sure that you are going to win. It doesn’t matter if you are right, or if your action is justified, or if the whole world agrees with you. No clear victory? Don’t take the bait! For example you get an email that you find objectionable (because it is insensitive, condescending, unfair, <insert reason>). You are about to write a sharp retort. Read the email again- is a defined action or response required from you?  If not, what are you trying to win by engaging? Can you win? It may be that by the very act of responding, you lose the battle, because you are effectively engaging in something that likely has no positive outcome for you. 

3. Don’t attack walled cities. A large employer, for example, is a walled city. You may have an unfair work situation and be tempted to fight it. But unless you are guaranteed a change (which would be rare) drop it. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the best strategy here. Try to think of one or two actions that will pacify your enemy and keep them at bay. Be deliberately non-threatening and let your enemies underestimate you. Lie low and keep your cards close to your chest. If you come across any weapons – i.e. the ability to execute on a threat – send a clear message to your opponent of the ability as well as the intention, but remember the goal is still to win without fighting.

4. If you really must fight, then move rapidly. What is valued in war is a quick and decisive victory, not prolonged operations. If you have a conflict with someone that you cannot ignore and you are in a position with some power to take a specific action – file a complaint, end a business relationship –do it quickly, cleanly, and move on as rapidly as you can. A common situation I hear about from clients: I am really disappointed with X, he/she is making me angry, I must tell them how unreasonable they are being. What should I say? Answer: Nothing. Or very little. Why should you tell them anything? Is your feedback going to change them? Is it worth your time? Move on. When you have an issue with someone, it’s not their problem. It’s your problem. So fix that- i.e. stop the engagement on your end.

5. Build a strong position. Weak positioning will catch up with you; false positioning will destroy you. Learn your subject well enough to teach it. Know your enemy, your environment, your terrain, and your destination. In general, the less active enemies you have in life the better. People who fly under the radar, who try to be agreeable and kind, and work quietly, typically achieve what they want. So try to swallow your pride and convert would-be detractors to supporters and fans. Always keep your side of the street clean.

And remember always: no matter how strong you are, even offensive strategy should be aimed at winning without major conflict. Those who actually fight real wars understand that even when they are on the winning side, the goal is still to minimize the conflict. This is because fighting consumes unparalleled energy, time, and resources.

There is a massive opportunity cost to every single battle – little and large – that you decide to engage in. Think before you raise the sword.

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