Conflict Resolution 101

Sharon Ray
Sharon Ray
Conflict Resolution 101

Avoiding conflict does not mean conflict is resolved. The ability to address tough situations head-on and communicate effectively will not only make you a better coworker, but could lead to both personal and professional growth. Learn everything you need to know about resolving...

Avoiding conflict does not mean conflict is resolved. The ability to address tough situations head-on and communicate effectively will not only make you a better coworker, but could lead to both personal and professional growth. Learn everything you need to know about resolving conflict in this live Q&A with Sharon Ray, Chief People Officer at Solstice!

In this chat, you'll also have the opportunity to ask Sharon about how to start a career at Solstice!

You asked, she's answering:

  • What steps should I be taking to resolve conflicts at work?
  • I feel like my team is always combatting my ideas - how do I address this?
  • As a manager, how can I help my team address conflict better?
  • & more!


Solstice, part of Kin + Carta, is a digital innovation firm that helps Fortune 500 companies seize new opportunities through world-changing digital solutions. We’re strategists, researchers, designers, and engineers hell-bent on changing the way the world does business. We’re headquartered in Chicago and have delivery offices in New York, London, and Buenos Aires.

Click here to follow Solstice on PowerToFly and apply to open opportunities!

Q: What steps should we be taking to resolve conflicts at work?

A: First of all, I would say most everybody has a complicated relationship with just handling conflict from the get-go. I like to think of conflict as an exercise in persuasion, and you're trying to get to the best resolution for all parties. So I think if we kind of reframe it that way, then it doesn't necessarily always look like a conflict. It's more a positive way of thinking about a problem that you have and how you're going to actually solve that problem.

At work, it's always interesting when you're trying to resolve some types of conflict. I do think that if you have a manager of sorts, that's the first place to go. Hopefully they've been trained in the tools and techniques to work through having some of those difficult conversations. So if you can start there, that's wonderful. If it does not get resolved there, then you can go to your EX department and have that conversation with someone in EX. And I wouldn't look for them to solve the issue - it's more about how do I personally solve that issue and what tips and tricks can you give me to be the best person I can be in the middle of that conversation.

Q: What if the company you work for does not have an HR department? Should we expect the owner of the company to be the mediator? If so, are there tools he or she could use or reference when dealing with this type of situation?

A: Now I do understand some people do not have EX departments in their company because they're just too small. Generally, someone has been appointed the person that can go and have that conversation with somebody. Ninety-nine percent of the time, it definitely is not the CEO. They have a lot to work on. So there has to be somebody else who can help - generally I've seen them in the finance department or in the operations department. If those are not options for you, then find an EX person that does not work with you, but maybe a friend of sorts that you can bounce those questions off of. They will give you some steps to take, including probably the best person to talk to in your organization.

Also, companies will have a designated person at some point in time. If they don't have someone when you arrive, someone will eventually be appointed because you're dealing with people, and anytime you deal with people, you're going to have some disagreements or conflict.

Q: When you get off on the wrong foot with someone, like one of your colleagues or a manager, how can you recover? Is the conflict resolution process different whether it involves your direct reports or your manager?

A: I'm going to start by answering the latter question first. I don't think the resolution is different - I think it's all in how you approach the situation. So anyone with whom I get off on the wrong foot, what I try to do is go own it. I would just go to the person and say, "We got off on the wrong foot. My apologies for that. What I'm trying to resolve is x. Can we have a conversation about that?" What I try to get to is respect in the conversation, and not necessarily that we're going to love each other at the end of it, because at the end of the day, you're trying to resolve something so that you can move forward and execute on the project or plan at hand.

Q: What if you're a freelancer and the issue is with the manager or the client - how does that differ?

A: To me, it doesn't differ - it's all in the approach. I have been a consultant before and had my own firm, and inevitably, getting off on the wrong foot is going to happen, but it's a sit-down conversation. And maybe what you do differently then is say, "I'm trying to resolve x, and I need your help in that. What's the best way that we can get to the solution so that we can both move forward?" So it's the same technique. You just kind of turned it around and put the resolution at the beginning, or the ask for the resolution at the beginning, and then try to repair that relationship on the backend. Once again, think about it as an exercise in persuasion. You're really trying to get people to come to your side of things, and then, how are you going to give a little so that it's best for both sides of the house?

Q: How do I know when to escalate an issue with a coworker? What are some suggestions to implement when management refuses to address issues or conflicts?

A: That's a tough question. I would say if you have tried several times in different ways with different language styles to try to appeal to that person, and it's just not working, I think that's a time to escalate, especially if it's impeding the work that you need to achieve. And then, if management refuses to address it, then that's when you need to go to your employee experience department and ask for help or coaching.

Q: What do you do when you escalate an issue and no one is listening, and then, a different person brings up the issue and is successful?

A: That is tough - another tough question. Thank you for putting those out there! I think I would maybe do a retro on that to go back and ask the question and own it. I always try to make it my thing. I don't say, "You didn't do x." What I try to do is go back and say, "So I understand that this particular idea, or what have you, went forward, but when I asked, it was something different." Just say, "I'm trying to learn, so that the next time I bring something to the table, I understand that I'm saying it in the correct way. And so, if you can help me with that, that would be greatly appreciated."

Q: How do you deal with female colleagues who become emotional or defensive when I give suggestions or feedback? How do you deal with colleagues who won't accept your resolutions?

A: I would say that is going to happen quite a bit in our careers. What I have done in the past, and this is only by experience, and I've been doing this for a long time, but if I know that they're connected to another person who knows about the situation, one of the things that I might do is have a conversation with that person. When I've tried, tried, tried, and it doesn't work to reach that one person, I might have a conversation with someone else to say, "How can I best deliver this information?" So it's important to understand how the person receives feedback. That's one way.

And then the other way might be to go to a collective manager in the group to say, "I'd like to give this feedback because I want it to work better in the future. What's the best way to give that feedback to the person?" I think that those are great ways to do it. However, this does not work 100% of the time. Sometimes, you have to let it go because they may be one of those people who just don't accept feedback from anyone, and that does exist. So if you have put your best foot forward, and you've also collaborated with others who you know are close to that person on how to give that feedback, and it's still not accepted, then there's really not a good way to do that.

Q: How do you deal with a situation where your boss is talking to your team directly, and perhaps either forgets to include you in the communication, or doesn't include you in the communication on purpose?

A: I would definitely talk to the boss and say, "I was not included in this discussion. I would really like to be included as it does impact all of us. How can I make sure that I am part of the conversation going forward?" So I wouldn't make it defensive - I said a lot of "I"s, so I put it back on me. I didn't say, "You didn't include me, and you should have." But I try to put it back on myself, and say, "I understand this happened. I would like to be included. It does impact my work on a daily basis, and going forward, I want to be able to have a say. How can I help to make this happen?"

Q: I feel like my team is always combating my ideas - how do I address this?

A: What I would say is I wonder if it's happening in the team setting, or if it's happening individually. Again, I would take it back to stating, "I want to learn." I would also potentially, depending on how large or small the team is, survey the team and say, "I've addressed this a couple of times, but my ideas aren't being talked about or brought to the forefront. Can you give me some ways to change this? Or, how can I bring my ideas to the forefront in a better way?" And I'd see what the collective thinking is. So if you talk to three or four people on that team and maybe try a different approach, that might be something good because if the entire team is doing it, there's something there, and you need to find out what that is.

Q: How does one approach a manager who is part of the conflict without feeling scared to bring up the issue?

A: If the manager is part of the conflict, go and try to have that conversation without talking about the conflict, but instead, talk about what you're trying to resolve so that you're not immediately putting them on edge. So that means that when you decide to ask for that conversation, I would ask for the conversation, without putting it in an email and without putting a title like conflict, my ideas, or anything like that. You're trying to keep everybody neutral coming into the conversation so that you can get what you need on the other side of that.

Q: How do you deal with a coworker being upset when you get a promotion, a special project, or some special treatment over them?

A: Yes, this happens all the time. I remember when I got promoted twice over people that I worked with, and we were friends. I mean that's an even bigger problem. So I went to those people, and I said, "You know, I did get the promotion. I understand how you feel. I want to be there for you." But you never apologize for your promotion - you never apologize for moving your career forward. You just go and say, "I kind of know this is sticky, but I'm still here for you, and I'm still your friend. I'd like to continue our relationship and figure out how we can work together so that moving forward, we're both going in the direction that we want to go in." And then, specifically on another front, they may not want to talk to you. I mean the friendship may have ended, and you have to be okay with that going forward. I've had that happen as well, where I was the person's boss, and they were not happy. I went to them and said, "I want to work together. I want to make sure that things go well." And they were just not happy, and there was nothing I was ever going to do to change that. I had to accept that, but run the team as I would.

Q: What happens if you're the person who doesn't get the promotion? How should you handle that? Are there ways that you can be the upper person in that situation?

A: I always try to say to take the high road. First of all, you never know who made the decision about that person getting promoted, and the person is going to be on edge anyway because they knew they got promoted. I am always going and saying, "Congratulations! How can I help you be successful?" And they may have nothing, but you've put yourself out there. You took the high road, and your promotion is coming eventually. Especially being in EX, I always tell people, "Look at what you want. Was it the promotion that you actually wanted, or was it a promotion that you wanted just because you were looking for a promotion? Is it on your career path?" So, think about you in that situation and the other person. It may not be the career path that you wanted, and your promotion is coming down the line for something that's suited for you.

Q: As a manager, how do you deal with tension on teams when people get promoted? Is there anything that you can do as a manager to kind of just make sure that the tension is eased a little bit?

A: Yes, I would say that the number one thing to do is treat people like humans. Everybody responds to something differently. So you have to have those individual conversations as a manager. I certainly would never address it as a team because it's a very personal issue when someone gets promoted over you. As a manager, talk to them about what they need to do to move their career forward. For example, there could be skills or competencies that that person doesn't have at that moment, but in the middle of the situation, you kind of have to decide what you're going to say and what you're not going to say. So the first part is just going in and having the conversation to hopefully relieve that stress. And then, you can determine based on whether they're crying or not crying, whether they're angry or not angry, how far you go into that conversation. And so, if you know it needs to be cut off, cut it off because it's going to be a terrible conversation if you don't.

So, you go in, you address, you feel it out, and see how it works. If it's working, and you feel like they're open, then continue the conversation about their skills and competencies as well as what they want to do with their career. If it's not working, and it's very combative and defensive, cut the conversation and have it some other time.

Q: How should I address issues that I've overheard or been told secondhand? Is it worth it to clear the air by telling them you know about the issue (and making them feel betrayed)?

A: So it's the game of telephone, right? You may hear about the issue secondhand or thirdhand, and it might not be the right issue. So going into that, knowing that you're going to open a can of worms, I would say to start with the end in mind. What do you want to happen? Do you want somebody to just know that you know, whatever the information is? Or, what's your plan? Why do you need somebody to know that information? So I would start there to decide whether I would do it or not. For me personally, I will tell you that I never address secondhand or thirdhand information because it probably loses the meaning of what was actually said in the beginning. And if it comes back to me, and say you need to talk to so and so, then I will gladly have that conversation.

Q: As a manager, how can I help my team, especially a “gossipy” team, address conflict better?

A: There are several things that you can do, one of which is replacing people on the team who are gossipy so that you don't have a team full of gossipy people. I'm being facetious there, but that's absolutely one of the things that you could do. Secondly, as a manager, what I try to do is go to my team and say - and this is EX, so we are held to a very high standard - if we are the gossipy ones, then we're not setting a good reputation for the firm, right? Because they look for us to be the people in charge and to not exhibit those behaviors. And if I have someone on my team that continues to exhibit those behaviors, then I probably need to find another role for them.

In some situations, one’s boss might be the gossipy one. What I have done in those situations is I have gone to that person and said, "We have this team dynamic right now, and we're kind of a gossipy team (not pointing fingers). But what I would enjoy or love by working on this team is that we can get to the root of issues rather than being gossipy because we're all here to do a job, and we're all here to respect each other. Again, I go back to - you don't have to like me, but I'm in a role, and I'm in that role for a reason, and I just want to be respected - and take it from there.

Q: Which trainings or exercises have you found really helpful?

A: So whenever I go into any conversation, what I do first is I map out my conversation. And this isn't that I learned it - I went to a training and learned it, and I've used it for my entire career. Especially if I know it's going to be a difficult conversation, I map it out and think about what are all the outcomes that can happen, and I make sure that I'm prepared for each of those outcomes before I go in. This ensures that I'm not surprised during the conversation because a lot of times when you're in these difficult conversations or in conflict, you go in, and you're already anxious. But if you can think of everything that might happen, what are all the outcomes, and you're prepared for them, then you can move it forward. You also don't get really emotional while you're in the conversation. And I'll give you an example.

I had a conversation with one of my managers once, and I knew what she was going to say. I called my friend the night before, and I said, "If this conversation does not go this way, I am going to leave the company, and I'm going to ask for this, this, and this." And the person said, "Yes, I think that's right." And I was like, "Okay.” So I went in, and I was extremely calm, and I listened to everything the person said. And then at the end, because they didn't get to where I wanted to get to, I put my ask on the table. I did not wait for them to answer, and I left, and I felt very powerful.

Q: As a manager, how can I avoid micromanaging my team?

A: I believe you need to know the skills on your team and give them the authority or the bandwidth to achieve their roles. But I understand that micromanaging comes from the fact that a lot of people are asking you questions. So figure out how you can get a KPI or an update. By doing so, when somebody is going to ask you questions, you already have the information at hand. That's really what I try to do. I don't want to go over and be at somebody's desk saying what I need. Although I do it sometimes, I try not to. But for me, micromanaging comes from when somebody is asking me for something immediately, and I don't have it. I do try to give this space for people to get what they need and get it to me.

Q: How do I approach “managing up” and resolving conflicts with my manager?

A: First I would say, know your manager, including what their hot buttons are, what their pet peeves are, and then what gets them inspired. When you go in, try to go in from the inspirational side of managing this conflict or managing up. So you've got to appeal to the person. And really, it's all about being human and talking to that person and trying to figure out what motivates them to get them aligned with you in that moment, so that you can have a really good and inspiring connection and conversation.

Q: Could you please talk about conflict resolution for remote/international teams who may have geographical and cultural differences? How do you resolve conflict if you're in that situation?

A: Yes. So at Solstice, we do have an office in Buenos Aires, and the culture is certainly different and how people talk to each other is different. I did go there, and they kiss each other everyday, and it's wonderful, and we're different than that. So what I try to do is let the team know that we are one company, and our resolution to whatever problem we're having should be collective. So I talked to them about what would the best resolution be for them, what would the best resolution be for us, and then how do we collaborate to get to the best answer, while also ensuring that we're solving the right problem. Most of the time, it's a surface type problem, and there are other things that are underneath that. So it's about getting to the core of what the issue is and then trying to collaborate to get to the best answer. And you can do that by phone or by Zoom. I don't like doing that via Slack, text, or email. It is about getting on the phone or the Zoom call to see everyone and really have that candid conversation.

Q: How do you best approach a coworker (same tenure) who's not doing his or her share of the work, while being respectful and not coming across as their manager or supervisor?

A: At Solstice, we don't have any managers at all, so we're all peers. We do thrive on giving people just in time feedback, and I would focus on the outcome that you are trying to achieve. It's not about going to someone and saying, "Hey, you're not doing your share of the work." It's more about saying, "Here's what we have to achieve as the team, and here's your portion. When can I expect it from you? Or, how can I help you achieve this piece so that we can move forward as a team?"

Q: How do you think conflict can be an avenue for innovation?

A: I actually think conflict is good. It's not always fun to be in conflict, but that's when your big ideas come out. I've been at one of my jobs before where we had healthy conflict, and we knew that we were going to have it, but it was in a very structured manner. And that's when you get to the best ideas and the best answers for innovation. So it's kind of a controlled conflict, but I think you should have those often.


Q: Can you give us a little insight into what Solstice does?

A: So what we do is we are a consulting firm. Digital innovation is our sweet spot, so we work with other firms to help them move their digital platform out, so that we can all use it. That's really what we do. We have lots of clients across the continuum - large and small - but people that just want to have that platform that's better, easy to use, and impactful for their clients. So we build teams around that to make that happen. And then of course, we have the operations side to make sure the company is running, as well as finance, EX, IT, and office experience departments.

Q: Can you tell us more about the company structure at Solstice?

A: So from the operations side of the house, we have more of a formalized structure, but we have a flat structure throughout the company. And we're a consulting firm, so we have teams of people that work on projects, and we give them the authority and the ability to come up with creative solutions for their clients. We also have a mentor/mentee structure, so everybody that comes into the company has a mentor. We empower them to utilize those people to help them move their careers forward in addition to having those daily just in time feedback conversations.

Q: Does the flat company structure actually work?

A: So it is hard. And I say nothing comes good unless it's hard. I think management structure, which I've lived in that for a long time, it really isn't easy based on all of the questions that we had today about conflict, right? So it's just different, and it depends on how you want to work, and do you want to be in charge, but not really like the person saying that something has to get done. It means that we're moving forward together in a way that makes sense of the collective thinking - it's not a manager just saying that it has to get done because they said that it needs to get done. So I love the collective thinking versus just kind of a top-down approach.

Q: Can you give us an example of one of your clients, and how you sell your service to the end client?

A: So I can't really give all of the names of our clients, but we do have Fortune 500 clients in agriculture, financial services, and consumer products. We do have a sales team that goes out and talks about what solutions we can provide. People like us, so we get referred. A lot of our business is based on referrals from other clients who've seen the work that we've produced for them, which is great. And then we partner with other entities and maybe go in as a whole enterprise deal where we develop one side and others develop another side. So it's really kind of cool.

Q: For which positions is Solstice currently hiring?

A: We have so many positions open right now - we would love for anyone to come work with us! Engineers - we're always hiring engineers. That's one of the core skills that we need for any project that we're working on. We also have openings in product, project, and program management. We're looking for scrum masters, which kind of serve as program managers. We are an agile firm, and so that means we work in iterations to make sure that each week we are looking at what we're developing and can adjust when necessary.

We also have positions available in UX design, UX research, marketing, and on our sales team - we have positions open across the board. We're growing, and that's amazing for us, and we would love to hire some people as soon as possible. If you're interested in any of those positions, you can apply at our PowerToFly page. We'd love to talk to you and have you kind of come through our process and come on board.

Q: Are there remote opportunities at Solstice?

A: Yes, depending on the position and the project that you're going on to. So some of our positions do require travel as all of our clients are not sitting in Chicago (our main office). If you can apply for positions, we can get you the information about working remotely depending on where the positions are located and what we're trying to achieve.

Q: What is your favorite part about working at Solstice?

A: I would say, and this is going to sound like everybody's going to say this, but it truly is the people. And I think when you decide to start a company, which our founder did, and we've been around for 12 years, and you want a people-first culture when it was not the thing to do at the time, it brings in a different kind of people. So we are really picky about who we bring in. For example, if you think about my background, truly I should not work here because I was at Kraft for 15 years, and it was definitely top-down. But when I got out of that, it was so awesome to be in a people-first culture and to really take care of our people and listen to them. And again, nobody here, including our CEO, thinks they know everything. So I believe we do a really nice job of making people feel that they are empowered, that they are part of this company, and they are part of building something that's special - and who doesn't want to be somewhere where it's special?

Meet The Speaker

Sharon Ray
Sharon Ray