Card image cap

Conflict at work – constructive or destructive?

Posted On December 16, 2020 • No Comments

How to handle negative emotions and behaviour in myself and others.

During October Australians have observed both National Mental Health Week and National Carers Week. And while mental health is always an important issue, this year it’s taken on all new significance, especially for those involved in caring roles. People everywhere are stopping to really think about what contributes to our mental wellbeing – because we’ve seen it challenged in 2020 more than ever.

Protective factors for mental wellbeing include positive family relationships and a supportive social network, as well as physical activity and adequate diet. And considering we spend a sizable amount of time in the workplace, our work relationships also play a significant role in our mental wellbeing. For better or worse, the quality of those relationships at work can affect our mental health. 

There’s no better feeling at work than knowing you’re surrounded by a supportive team, because even when the work itself becomes challenging or overwhelming we know we have support at the next desk or in the next room. For many though, that support just isn’t there. 

Even in great workplaces, we can still experience conflict, negative emotions or negative behaviour from those we work with. And so it’s vital that we understand how to handle conflict, and how to deal with negative emotions – both in ourselves and in others. As professional carers, it’s one significant way we can genuinely care for ourselves.

Managed well, conflict can be harnessed as a means to forging strong and positive workplace culture, developing leadership skills, or unifying a team.


Conflict – constructive or destructive?

Many of us would naturally associate conflict with negative emotions. And while conflict may produce unpleasant feelings, it doesn’t have to be destructive. In fact, handled with care, conflict can be a means of personal growth and workplace progress.

Managed well, conflict can be harnessed as a means to forging strong and positive workplace culture, developing leadership skills, or unifying a team. Skilled leaders know that working through issues head on can bring us into a stronger place as a team as we embrace our differences as a point of strength.

Sometimes though, we allow conflict to take us out with its draining emotional load. Still other times, conflict that’s not dealt with in a healthy way can give rise to ongoing and unresolved division in the workplace, which creates tension and stress for the wider group.


Handling conflict

So how do we handle conflict and the emotions or behaviours that come with it? If you find yourself in the middle of a workplace where there’s always one issue or another getting air time, here’s some general thoughts about managing your own emotions, dealing with the emotions of others, and staying healthy through it all:


Managing my emotions:

First, recognise that conflict isn’t innately destructive – rather the way it’s handled can have either positive or negative outcomes. Changing your own personal belief about conflict can help you reframe the negative emotional response that it carries. This means you’ll be able to harness its potential for positive change instead of being overwhelmed by it.

When confronted with conflict at work, try these strategies:

  • Take your time: Waiting and counting to ten before we respond can prevent emotional reactions or outbursts that we may later regret.
  • Deep breathing: Often emotions like frustration, dislike, or anger can be accompanied by an overwhelming emotional response. To get back in control at a physical level, try some deep breathing back at your desk, or on your way to the next client. This helps to regulate body systems, sending a message to calm our ‘fight or flight’ response.
  • What happens at work, stays at work: Whether you walk, drive or catch public transport to and from work – it’s the perfect time to compartmentalise and leave work related issues at work. Take time on the journey to process your day, understanding what led to issues, and how you might deal with things next time. This helps prevent unwanted stress at home.

Check out heaps more strategies via HealthXchange.

Remember, if you start to experience ongoing unhappy or depressive thoughts and emotions, it’s important to reach out for help. Many community services workplaces offer an independent, confidential counselling service as part of your employment package, so there’s nothing to lose by simply arranging some time to talk. Caring for yourself helps you stay healthy so you can keep doing what you love – caring for others.


Responding to others during conflict:

In times of stress, emotions run high. And perhaps never have the caring professions been under such levels of stress as they have been during the pandemic. Everyone across the community services sector has had to adopt a new level of vigilance, and rightly so, in order to protect those most vulnerable in our community.

While stress is generally unavoidable, it doesn’t mean it’s easy to deal with – especially when stress results in negative emotions or behaviors in those around us. If you find yourself in a stressful situation that bubbles over into conflict, here’s some strategies that can help:

  • Keep it objective: it can fuel the tension to put the focus on people – keep comments to events and objective, observable events.
  • Allow the other person to express themselves: trying to find out who’s in the right will not help in the moment. Usually a situation can be diffused much more easily if everyone feels heard. Just listen and acknowledge their emotions.
  • Put words around it: try to sum up the problem as simply as possible. If you have an agreement on that, at least you can start to move forward.
  • Refer if needed: once the issue has been identified, it may need to be taken further – to a managerial level, a WHS committee, or other appropriate setting. Once calm has returned, decide the best way to deal with the issue should it arise again.


Conflict as a way forward

Whether it’s in the moment as a care worker, or after the fact as a manager or employer, there’s no doubt that working through conflict is not pleasant. But by taking the approach of listening to one another, and embracing difference as strength, we can utilise conflict as a growth mechanism in the workplace – and ultimately widen our perspectives and potential in the process.

Listening + embracing diversity as strength = conflict as a workplace growth mechanism

If you liked this article, please share:

Filed under: Community Services