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How to Manage Disagreements With Others in the Workplace

Focus on your colleagues’ needs, concerns, and fears during a conflict.

How to Manage Disagreements With Others in the Workplace

Focus on your colleagues’ needs, concerns, and fears during a conflict.
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Presented by:

Today, we are witnessing all types of disagreements. They could be between the president and Congress, various heads of state, or even people within your company. Maybe you are currently having conflict with one or more of your co-workers. Luckily there are many ways to manage disagreements with others.

When people disagree with one another, they usually engage in positional arguing,  meaning each side takes a position and argues for it. They may reach agreement this way, but often they will not. One important thing to remember about managing disagreements is to not haggle over positions. There are a few reasons for that.

  • It often produces unwise agreements 
  • It is too costly and it takes too long

Because both parties dig in and stridently defend their positions, agreement becomes merely a mechanical splitting of the difference between positions. The result is often an agreement that neither side feels is satisfactory.

Each party has learned through experience that the best way to improve their chances of getting what they want is to start with an extreme position, hold to it obstinately, and then make small concessions only when absolutely necessary.  These tactics add to the time and costs of reaching final agreement.         

  • It jeopardizes relationships

Over time, each party becomes frustrated with the other. This frustration often leads to anger and resentment, as each side feels that it is being made to bend to the will of the other.

You may be asking, “If our discussion does not focus on our opposing positions, what should it focus on?” The answer is simple—when you are trying to resolve a disagreement, you need to make an effort to find out the needs, concerns, and fears behind the other party’s stated position. There are a few different approaches to this:  

  • Ask the person directly
  • Use an indirect approach

When you ask a direct question, for example, “Why do you specifically want our organizations to merge at this time?” it makes it clear that you do not just want a basic restatement of a position, but that you are truly interested in a person’s goals and feelings.

Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Think about the position they are taking and ask yourself, “Why?” Ask yourself why the other party would be so interested in their end goal. What would they get out of it? What would their company derive? Once you’ve identified these possibilities, you can mention them to the other person and examine their reactions. 

  • Be on the lookout for basic human needs

Always be on the lookout for some of those bedrock needs that drive most people, such as security, economic well-being, a feeling of belonging, status, recognition, being regarded by others as being highly competent, and possessing power and control.

Gerstel, Inc. is located in Linthicum Heights and is a leading provider of GC/MS and LC/MS automated sample preparation and sample extractions locations. Gerstel’s CEO and vice president of sales had an honest disagreement regarding the level of the company’s sales goals for the upcoming year. This disagreement was resolved when the CEO asked the VP why he was taking the position he was. The VP explained that he believed the sales goals should be set higher because his salesforce could do better. The VP also realized that the CEO wanted the sales goals to remain unchanged because he already had a directive from the parent company to which he was committed and about which he felt secure.

Managerial research has found five primary strategies for dealing with interpersonal disagreements: 

  • Avoiding involves withdrawing from the situation in order to avoid conflict at all costs. This could mean leaving the solution to the passage of time or fate.
  • Smoothing involves sweeping the disagreement “under the rug” and pretending that everything is pleasant, serene, and cooperative.
  • Compromising involves each party getting something and giving up something.
  • Battling involves fighting in a way that produces a clear winner and loser.
  • Problem solving involves both parties first confronting the disagreement and then resolving it through collaboration.

Although all of these strategies can be useful at times, Avoiding and Battling often result in negative feelings and outcomes. Compromising works best when both parties somehow “win” as a result. Smoothing can be a worthwhile strategy when you need time for feelings to cool down. However, you will need to eventually deal with the issues that caused the disagreement. The strategy that works best in the most situations is Problem Solving.

How well do you listen when you are arguing with someone else? If you are like most people, when the other person is speaking, you are either preparing your rebuttal or thinking of additional ways to support your viewpoint. You probably also judge the other person’s statements as being right or wrong using your own point of view without ever considering their perspective. From now on, try these techniques:

  • Give the other person your full attention without thinking about how you are going to respond.
  • Avoid interrupting others.
  • Show the person you are really listening to them by maintaining eye contact, nodding your head periodically, and leaning forward.

In his book Managing Disagreement Constructively, Herbert Kindler presents four blocks that can interfere with the constructive resolution of differences. The next time you find yourself disagreeing with someone at work, examine whether you may be exhibiting one of these behaviors.  

  • Rigid Behavior: You are so committed to your views that you are unwilling to change your mind, reluctant to admit when you are wrong, and averse to listening to opposing viewpoints
  • Timid Behavior: You forego stating your position for the sake of maintaining harmonious relations and allow others to push past your views without giving them the consideration they deserve.
  • Intrusive Behavior: You like to be personally involved or take charge, even when it is not necessary to the task at hand. You have an opinion about everything, even things you do not know much about.
  • Aloof Behavior: You avoid confrontations that are likely to be emotionally charged, avoid getting personally involved if you can delegate the responsibility to others, and keep your feelings to yourself even when others share theirs with you.

Before trying to solve any complex disagreement, it is essential that all “people problems” be disentangled from the real problem and dealt with separately. When two high-level executives we know disagreed adamantly about their organization’s proposed marketing plan, they had no hope of coming to any agreement on the issue until they first worked on resolving the fact that they had mistrust and resentment toward one another.

Whenever people disagree vehemently with one another, the result is unfortunately a weak solution. Why? In their book Getting To Yes, Roger Fisher and William Ury contend that trying to decide something in the presence of an adversary narrows your vision. Having a lot at stake also inhibits your creativity. To counter this, ask to meet with the other party in a neutral place, such as a conference room or outside the office.  Begin the session by pinpointing together exactly where the disagreement lies, then work collaboratively on generating as many alternative solutions as you can. Strive to come up with at least five possibilities. Remember, the only way to do this is to make certain everyone involved remains nonjudgmental. MoJo Art & Image is a Baltimore-based company that specializes in automated and manual screen-printing, color separating, screen preparation, embroidery, and design. The CEO and COO of MoJo disagreed with one another regarding whether to take on a new, lower-margin account. They had numerous conversations about this topic in their offices, but couldn’t reach an agreement. Finally, they decided to discuss the issue over lunch at a local restaurant and were then able to find a solution.

Rather than debating what each party is going to do or not do, focus the conversation on what is the best solution or decision for the business.  CEO Steve Taormino and vice president Jack Taormino are executives at CC & A Strategic Media, a Baltimore-based company that specializes in digital marketing strategy development and implementation. The Taorminos used this approach when deciding whether to change the name of their company to CC&A Strategic Media from CC&A Web Development. They felt the new name better conveyed what their company actually does to existing and prospective customers.

It takes a great deal of effort to fight against the natural tendency to show disrespect and anger toward those who disagree with us. It is crucial to express disagreements tactfully and sensitively, allow the other side to let off steam, avoid reacting to emotional outbursts, and attack the problem, not the person. The best solution to any disagreement is one through which both parties leave the situation feeling that they have won. 

Kenneth Wexley, Ph.D. and president of Wexley Consulting HRD-LLC and Douglas Strouse, Ph.D. and president of the CEO Club of Baltimore, are both Organizational Psychologists.


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