Few people relish the idea of walking into a workplace rife with conflict. What’s more, conflict can be a drag on productivity and creativity. So what are the best ways to manage conflict at work?

Podcast Insight In Person

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The answer depends on the type of conflict you face. In this Insight In Person podcast, we talk with two Kellogg professors of management and organizations about two different types of conflict.

Jeanne Brett addresses cross-cultural conflict, offering advice on the best ways to diffuse tense situations—or better yet, avoid them in the first place. Eli Finkel, who is also a professor of psychology, explains how his research into romantic relationships is also relevant among coworkers.

Podcast transcript

Emily STONE: Offices can be breeding grounds for interpersonal conflict, from the petty to the pronounced. One person can’t stand the guy who talks too loud on his phone; another is bitter at being passed over for promotion.

But teams will function better—be more productive and creative—if people get along. So what can you do to manage conflict in your organization?

Hello, and welcome to Insight In Person, a monthly podcast produced by the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. I’m your host, Emily Stone.

This month, we’ll explore how to manage workplace conflict by looking at it through two lenses—cross-cultural conflict and good, old-fashioned relationship tensions—because knowing what sort of conflict you’re dealing with is a key step toward managing the problem. So stay with us.

Learn more from Jeanne Brett about constructive collaboration, negotiation strategies, and leading high impact teams in Kellogg’s Executive Education Program.

The answer depends on the type of conflict you face. In this Insight In Person podcast, we talk with two Kellogg professors of management and organizations about two different types of conflict.

Jeanne Brett addresses cross-cultural conflict, offering advice on the best ways to diffuse tense situations—or better yet, avoid them in the first place. Eli Finkel, who is also a professor of psychology, explains how his research into romantic relationships is also relevant among coworkers.

Jeanne BRETT: After one of my exec ed programs when we were talking about multicultural teams, one of the participants came up to me and he said, “You know, I thought I had a gender-prejudice problem on my hands, but now I’m thinking maybe it’s culture.”

STONE: That’s Jeanne Brett, a professor of management and organizations at Kellogg and the director of the school’s Dispute Resolution Research Center.

The scenario described to her involved a Chinese manager working temporarily in the U.S. He couldn’t seem to work through his differences with another manager, who was an American woman. He kept going over her head, to the executive, whenever an issue arose. The executive assumed the Chinese manager was uncomfortable working with a woman. But after Brett’s class on cross-cultural conflict, he looked at the problem through a different cultural lens.

BRETT: Because China’s a hierarchical culture, and in China, when you have a conflict with a peer, you take that conflict to the boss. It’s the boss’s job to make a decision, and then both parties have to kind of accept that decision and nobody loses face because it’s the boss’s decision, not theirs.

STONE: And just like that, you go from having a problem employee to having an understandable cultural difference.

BRETT: I see that it’s not just you trying to be difficult; it’s rather you acting as you normally would, given your culture. So if you can label it as “cultural,” then you can begin to say, “Okay, now I understand where they’re coming from, let’s see how I can deal with it.”

STONE: Understanding this can be a powerful tool, because there are many ways that cultural differences can cause confusion and conflict in the workplace.

BRETT: Starting with issues of fluency and language; preexisting prejudices; differences in norms about what constitutes a workday; differences in how do you go about making decisions; differences in when do you stop collecting information and when do you make a decision; differences in what “yes” means.

STONE: Failing to recognize that any one of these cultural differences is causing conflict or frustration can come at a cost.

BRETT: Misunderstanding can lead to high emotion that gets in the way of the team doing its work. People’s relationships get involved. People won’t work together, and you lose business.

STONE: Take, for example, a tense moment Brett’s daughter recounted recently. She works in France and was helping an American client set up a wine-tasting week. After picking a hotel, her American client sent a 15-page boilerplate contract to the hotel owner. To the Americans, it was just a pro forma part of doing business. Not so for the hotelier. Here’s Brett again.

BRETT: He was furious because they had had an oral agreement about what he was going to provide, what they were going to pay, etc. He had taken it personally that they didn’t trust him to provide what it was he had committed to, and he was deeply offended.

STONE: In retrospect, understanding that the written contract would offend the Frenchman, and warning him in advance of its arrival, would have prevented a lot of problems—which is a key piece of advice Brett gives.

BRETT: The first thing is to try to kind of inoculate people in advance.

STONE: Better not to have the conflict in the first place then to have to fix the broken pieces after the fact. Take this story that Brett was told about a manager brought in to lead a newly assembled software team.

BRETT: He said, “I know I have an accent, I know it’s difficult to understand me, we cannot let my accent get in the way of the effectiveness of this team. If you don’t understand what I’m saying, we’ve got to go to the board, we’ve got to draw pictures, you’ve got to talk to me.” That just diffused the whole problem. He said, “after a while we got really good with his accent.”

STONE: But that kind of forethought—being able to see a problem before it arises—or at the very least being able to recognize something as a cultural conflict when it does arise, requires a particular mindset. And it’s one leaders would be wise to hire for, Brett says. This means looking for people who have their own multicultural experience. Or for people who are, as Brett puts it, “culturally metacognitive.”

BRETT: That’s a big word. What it means is these are people when you put them in a situation, they will work it. They will try to analyze it from a cultural perspective. People who are culturally metacognitive are more likely to say, “Okay, this behavior is very strange. This is not what I’m used to. It looks like an obstacle. Why is this person behaving this way? I wonder if it’s culture.”

STONE: In addition to bringing in culturally metacognitive people, another strategy is to rely on your teams to problem-solve. Brett points to the example of a company with call centers in both the U.S. and Latin America. The call-center workers in the U.S. were angry that their Latin American counterparts took two-hour lunches, leaving them to shoulder all the work during that time. Their managers asked the teams to try to resolve the dispute.

BRETT: The Americans then realized that the Latin Americans may be gone for two hours in the middle of the day for lunch, but they were working 2 hours later in the evening. They then began to figure out how to share the work.

STONE: But how relevant are these solutions to cross-cultural conflict in the long run? The world, after all, is getting flat. How much cultural distinction is there still in the post-MTV age of YouTube and Facebook?

Plenty, Brett says.

BRETT: People ask me a lot, isn’t everyone—because everyone in the business world now speaks English—isn’t everyone becoming Western? My answer to that is, “No, not really.”

Even when you’re an expat, at the end of the day you’re going home and you’re interacting with your American family. You’re raising your American kids. They’re going to an international school. We maintain our cultures within our own families and hand it down from one generation to the other. I don’t think the world is going to become one, and frankly, I wouldn’t want that kind of a world.

STONE: Obviously, not all workplace conflicts can be chalked up to cultural misunderstandings. That guy who talks too loud on the phone? He’s just annoying.

ELI FINKEL: Anytime that you have what we might call interdependence—that is, I rely on you, you rely on me to get our work done, to lead fulfilling lives, to have a happy day—there’s room for friction and conflict. And so, to the degree that my ability to function effectively at work is dependent upon what you do, there’s plenty of room for us to have conflict.

STONE: That’s Eli Finkel, a professor of management and organizations at Kellogg.

If some of what he just said about the thorniness of interdependence and conflict sounds more suited for a couple’s therapist than a management expert, that’s because Finkel is also a professor of psychology who focuses much of his research on romantic relationships.

FINKEL: One of the major things that’s always been interesting to me about relationships is the way that certain people bring out the best in us; other people bring out the worst in us. How is it that you and I function together as a team in order to make me a better version of myself than I would have been if I had worked with a different person. That was always interesting to me in terms of romantic relationships and other contexts. I became particularly interested in thinking about those sorts of issues in the business context.

STONE: Because, when you boil it down, the way you resolve conflicts in your living room isn’t that different than how you should approach them in the conference room.

FINKEL: There are some general principles that are effective if you want to learn how to navigate conflict. And those principles, for the most part, should apply across a broad range of relationship contexts.

For example, it’s generally a good strategy toward defusing conflict to convey that you’ve understood what the other person said, and they feel very much heard. You can say, “I understand how you got there, and I respect that point of view. Here are some concerns that I have, and here’s why I disagree with you about your conclusion.” That general approach is going to be wise on average across almost all the circumstances you’re going to face.

STONE: That’s right, dear listener, you just got some solid relationship advice while listening to a business podcast. You’re welcome. But we’re just getting started.

Finkel conducted research that shows how a tiny exercise—one that takes just 21 minutes of your time a year—could help your relationships.

The researchers recruited 120 married couples for a two-year experiment. The first year, every four months, the couples wrote for seven minutes about the biggest conflict they and their spouse had recently had. The next year, half the couples had an additional seven-minute writing task every four months.

FINKEL: They tried to think about the conflict from the perspective of a neutral third party who wants the best for all involved.

STONE: The couples were also instructed to think about why it’s hard to adopt a neutral perspective in the heat of a disagreement. The results after a year were impressive.

FINKEL: Those people experienced significant benefits to their marriage. Higher levels of relationship satisfaction, higher levels of intimacy, even higher levels of passion, which the long-married listeners in your group probably know is a little bit of the holy grail in marriage—how do we sustain high levels of passion over time? I see no reason why it couldn’t be an effective way of helping people think constructively and feel better about their workplace, about their coworker experiences.

STONE: So, every four months, leaders could ask their staff to sit down and write about workplace frustrations.

FINKEL: And then have them try to think about it from a broad perspective. Let’s imagine that there’s some omniscient, omnipotent perspective that you can adopt where you’re just trying to think about what’s best for everybody. What’s best for you, what’s best for your coworkers, what’s best for the organization.

STONE: The mechanism at work here is simply a bit of detachment, just getting outside of your own head.

FINKEL: We tend to experience conflict right through the perspective of our own eyeballs.

STONE: Meaning, it’s easy to focus on how everyone is annoying you. But much harder to see how you’re annoying them.

FINKEL: What adopting this neutral, benevolent third-party perspective helps us do is see the little foibles that your coworker has, or that annoying customer has, from a broader perspective, which helps you avoid just finger-pointing at it and try to adopt some perspective and some sympathy or even some empathy for it, but also helps you get a little bit of perspective on the ways in which you yourself might be contributing to some of the issues that might be happening personally with a client, or with a coworker, or what have you.

STONE: Finkel has conducted other research into romantic relationships that can be used in the boardroom. One experiment focused on our memories of conflict. Because so much of the time it’s not the immediate anger that’s the problem; it’s the long-simmering aftereffect.

FINKEL: When these events happen, they’re not things that happen in the blink of an eye and then don’t matter anymore. If they were, they’d be very easy to handle, right? These negative events, people ruminate about these events, people become frustrated, people change their perception globally of what the other person is really like and whether that person cares about me.

STONE: So Finkel and his team looked at how well we remember transgressions in our relationships. The researchers had romantic partners write about, in real time, any transgressions they endured. Participants gave various pieces of information, including rating the severity of the transgression on a scale of 1 to 7. Then, a couple weeks later, the researchers asked participants to recall the severity of the transgression.

FINKEL: It turns out that to the degree that you have high levels of trust in your partner, you systematically misremember the past in a benevolent way.

Now, I want to be clear about this: this isn’t a case where you say, “Yeah, I recognized that he was being a total jerk, but I’m over it and I forgive it.” You literally don’t remember it as being as severe as it was.

STONE: We’ll let you decide the takeaways for your romantic relationships. But the takeaways for the workplace are clear. Obviously, fostering trust is important. But, perhaps less intuitive is the realization that our memories of past infractions aren’t as good as we think they are.

FINKEL: We tend to have a lot of faith in our memories, and we are probably well served by keeping in mind that our memories, especially regarding interpersonal conflict and transgressions, are biased in all sorts of ways. It’s something that all of us should be on guard for. And, in particular, all of us should be a little bit more modest about how good our memories are.

STONE: Meaning, that guy who talks too loud all the time? Maybe he’s not really that bad. Maybe.

STONE: This program was produced by Jessica Love, Fred Schmalz, Emily Stone, and Michael Spikes.

Special thanks to Kellogg School professors Jeanne Brett and Eli Finkel.

You can stream or download our monthly podcast from iTunes, Google Play, or from our website, where you can read more about conflict resolution, negotiations, and trust. Visit us at insight.kellogg.northwestern.edu. We’ll be back next month with another Insight In Person podcast.