Handling conflict

The subject of conflict is a challenge for many job applicants. Most people don’t like conflict and may feel they have had little experience of it in the workplace. More likely to be raised during interviews than in an application, people can struggle to respond in a useful way.

In order to deal with this challenge, it’s useful to grasp these details:

  • How conflict may be expressed in a job description.
  • What conflict is.
  • What is useful material to include in describing conflict situations.
How conflict may be expressed in a job description.

It would be an unusual set of criteria that didn’t include at least one item on communication, interpersonal skills, teamwork or client service. Often, all of these are included as they are essential for most jobs.

There are occasions when conflict is specifically mentioned. For example, a project officer role in state government includes this criterion:

Experience with conflict resolution and negotiation, including technical issues management.

What conflict is

Conflict is a broad term referring to disagreements, particularly where there is a perceived threat to needs or interests. Disagreements about how to act, think and feel are natural and occur because people hold differing views about what is important to themselves. Conflict can arise between individuals, as well as within and between groups.

Words associated with conflict – quarrel, fight, battle, struggle, opposition, argument – all carry negative connotations. Understandably, most people want to avoid such situations. Avoidance however, is not a useful response. Recognising when a difference is at risk of escalating to conflict, such as reaching a decision at a team meeting when it is clear that people still hold differing views, and taking steps to manage it, is a critical skill for people to have.

Behaviours that breed a negative atmosphere and which feed grievances are taking credit for someone else’s work, back-stabbing, scape-goating, withholding information, pursuing hidden agendas. More serious, and illegal, are bullying and harassment.

When writing criteria responses you are likely to pick examples that are positive, reflecting strong, effective skills and productive outcomes. Some roles may involve dealing with people who behave in less than ideal ways. Often referred to as ‘difficult’ or ‘challenging’ people, these clients or stakeholders may be sufficiently important to the role to warrant a mention in the job description and criteria. Examples of such roles, apart from the obvious ones like police and prison officers, nurses, paramedics, are those that involve daily contact with a cross-section of the public often facing trying circumstances – court officers, help-desks, service centres. People that you may encounter can be upset, irritated, angry, abusive, even violent.

You may also encounter poor behaviour in the workplace, from colleagues, managers and stakeholders. In these circumstances you need to be clear about the differences between:

  • Unsatisfactory performance: behaviours that indicate a person is not meeting work standards and expectations, such as lateness, not meeting deadlines, unauthorised absence.
  • Misconduct: behaviour that clearly violates mandatory standards, such as a public service Code of Conduct, or legislation.
  • Disruptive behaviour: behaviour that has a negative impact such as emotional outbursts and political behaviours (e.g. hidden agendas).

These are not clear-cut distinctions nor mutually-exclusive. Unsatisfactory performance can include disruptive behaviour. However when it comes to questions about conflict, which are more likely to arise in an interview than in the application, you do need to give some thought to your experiences.

When asked about dealing with conflict, many people will say they work in a friendly environment and have no relevant experience to draw on. How lucky they are. It would, however, be a rare soul who has never witnessed some form of undesirable, inappropriate or unacceptable behaviour, even if not directed at themselves.

What is useful material to include in describing conflict situations.

Before exploring possible examples, think about what role you play and what responsibilities that carries. If you are a team leader, supervisor or manager you carry additional responsibilities about people’s performance. Part of your role is to set standards, ensure compliance, model professional behaviour, provide feedback, foster a positive working environment and deal with unsatisfactory performance.

As part of a team you have responsibilities to cooperate with others, share information, meet standards, model professional behaviour and contribute to a positive working environment. It is also part of your role to understand the authority and responsibilities of your manager so that you avoid misinterpreting their legitimate behaviour as something that it isn’t, such as harassment.

When sharing examples of negative interactions there are several points to consider:

  • Do not share confidential, private information or any details with security implications. Do not name names. If members of a selection panel are likely to know who you are talking about and/or were involved in the situation, consider whether it is wise to use the example.
  • Pick an example where you took responsibility for a situation or for your response to a situation and explain how you assessed that situation, what actions you took and what result you gained. Part of how you handle a situation is to diagnose the situation and decide what is the best response to make, including where possible, taking a non-disciplinary, non-adversarial approach.
  • Do not assume that conflict means worst-case behaviour. Think about what situations are likely to arise in the context of the role. If possible, select examples that match this context.

Questions about challenging people may be in part designed to test whether you know the relevant policies and procedures and when to apply them. When giving responses about difficult people consider the relevant legislation, policies, procedures. These include:

  • The relevant public service Act
  • Codes of Conduct and Standards
  • Employment principles, Enterprise Agreements, employment contracts
  • Under-performance procedures
  • Legislation on harassment, bullying, discrimination
  • Client service standards.

Questions about difficult or challenging people may be designed to assess your teamwork, client service and interpersonal skills. Questions about managing under-performance are likely to be raised in interviews for team leader, supervisory and management roles. Roles that involve working with stakeholders from outside an organisations are likely to attract questions about networking, managing relationships and responding to challenging people who may hold strong views about an issue, views contrary to other stakeholders and/or those of the government. All of these behaviours are reflected in capability frameworks.

Recognise that any situation you have faced that falls under the heading of ‘dealing with difficult people’ will be context-specific. How you handled it will depend on the circumstances – who was involved, what your relationship to them was, what behaviour had been observed and so on. In assessing how to respond, you would have undertaken some analysis, weighed options, made a decision, exercised judgement, possibly drawn on relevant expertise. While there may be some generalisable points about interpersonal skills, actions are likely to be specific to the context. To assess the validity of your response, you need to give sufficient contextual information. Applicants can err on brevity about the context, thereby denying the panel the opportunity to make a reasonable assessment.

Given that examples are driven by context, a follow-up question you should anticipate is ‘What did you learn from this situation?’ or ‘If you were faced with this situation again, what would you do differently?’ Part of your record-keeping is to consider these questions in order to readily feed your interview preparations. A good story can be undermined by a weak response to this probe.

While it is ideal to have a ‘happy ending’ to a story about dealing with difficult people, this is not always the outcome. Some people just don’t want to be ‘fixed’, are belligerently uncooperative, or are square pegs in round holes, doomed to under-performance unless moved to another role. A situation can drag on for so long that it becomes someone else’s problem. Where any of these apply, you will need to focus on the entrenched complexities of the situation and the range of options you took to find a solution.

Another option is to use an example where you anticipated potential conflict and took action to prevent it happening or escalating into something unpleasant. Sophisticated interpersonal skills are needed to identify such situations and take effective action. Staff who can act in this way are a major asset.

Dr Ann Villiers, career coach, writer and author, is Australia’s only Mental Nutritionist specialising in mind and language practices that help people build flexible thinking, confident speaking and quality connections with people.