Resolving Conflict in the Workplace

We’ve all been there. At some stage in a project, you and the client just don’t see eye to eye. Whether you disagree on the proposed budget for a project, the amount of time needed to complete the work, or the entire creative concept, you’ve got to find a way to sort through the differences, because running to your supervisor and saying, “It’s all their fault!” just isn’t an option. So how exactly do you resolve conflict in the workplace as an in-house designer?

Chris Hutchinson, CEO of the Trebuchet Group, has provided consulting services to dozens of organizations, with the aim of helping coworkers resolve challenges in a constructive way. Here, he shares a little of what he’s learned.


Chris Hutchinson

Some of your techniques for sorting through difficult conversations come long before there are problems. Can you start there?

Sure, one thing that can dramatically [influence] people’s ability to find a common solution is the “cascading needs” approach. If you’re a graphic designer, and I’m a client, start with what we passionately agree on first. Second, focus on the client’s needs, and lastly, focus on your needs.

So at your workplace—the National Parks Conservation Association—I might start by asking, “What are we trying to do? Preserve parks for perpetuity? Make sure as many people as possible donate money?” And we both have to look at each other and say “Damn straight. Of course that’s our goal.

Then for Step 2, I’d say, “What are your needs, meeting a certain budget?” You want to be very up-front about those key details. So now it’s my turn. As a designer, I might say “I need you to provide me with materials at a pace that will keep us on schedule, and I need you to make decisions quickly.”

I want to know what they most want to achieve, and what they want to avoid. Those questions will engage people so they’re thinking strategically, beyond things like “I don’t like that font.”


That’s a helpful way to set things up, but if there are conflicts, regardless, where do you go from there? In my team’s work on our annual report, we’ve struggled with our fund-raising team to balance the content between the stories of individual donors and the focus on our organization’s victories.

If a conflict arises, think of jujitsu—get closer to the client rather than fighting against them; tuck into their blow and step sideways. So if a client on your development team says, for instance, that they want to focus the annual report on specific donors, you might say:

“I understand that you want to make sure that donors are really seen as people who are making a difference, and I’m concerned that people might not be as interested in those donors, and that may lead them to stop reading before they learn more about the good work the organization has achieved this year. Is there a chance that could happen?”


Photo from Shutterstock

And they’ll probably agree that it’s possible. At which point you can respond, “Well, I really want people to read this from front to back, so here are some alternatives that might help address those concerns …”

If that approach doesn’t work, there’s a technique I’ll sometimes use called “radical transparency.” And that entails simply: say what you’re feeling. For instance, “Jim, I have to admit I’m really stuck and I need your help. I want to do a fantastic job on this piece, and fulfill all your needs, yet I want to share something and I’m afraid it could make you upset. I’m considering leaving it off the table, yet I want to provide some of my professional experience. Can you help me?”

Odds are your colleague will say “just say it,” opening the door for a possibly challenging conversation, but one that you can enter into in good faith. Radical transparency can really disarm people in a positive way, if you’re working toward the same goal. If you’re merely trying to force your goal onto another person, then it isn’t going to help.


In your work, you talk a lot about how different people bring different values to the table, and resolving conflict can often come from simply identifying the way we’re filtering events through our own values.

That’s right, I find most of us fall into one of these categories:

  • Social: Characterized by an inherent love of people—generally kind, sympathetic, and unselfish.
  • Utilitarian: A strong interest in money and what is useful, generally very practical and business-like.
  • Traditional: Drawn to unity, order or tradition. Interested in defined rules and principles.
  • Theoretical: Focused on learning “the truth,” interested in observing and learning for its own sake.
  • Individualistic: Primarily focused on attaining power and influence.
  • Aesthetic: An inherent interest in forms and harmony, an interest in the artistic episodes of life—often where graphic designers find themselves.

The real kicker is what do you do when you’re not getting paid? If someone spends all of their free time surfing Wikipedia, they’re probably motivated by the theoretical. If they donate their time to nonprofits, then they probably value the social aspects.


Photo from Shutterstock

One extreme example I like to share with audiences is a client of mine who was a hard-charging executive, whose wife had just served divorced papers on him. He was utilitarian, extremely motivated by money, so as the two of us talked, it became clear to him that this divorce would probably be pretty expensive for him. After a little bit of work on a whiteboard, he scribbled $254/hr., and thanked me profusely.

A few days later his wife called to ask me what I had said to him. Ever since our conversation he had changed dramatically, she says he’d gotten a lot more focused on her and their children and was really connecting with them. Of course I couldn’t share that conversation with her, but it seemed pretty clear, that in client’s mind, the cash register was running, and that motivated him to change his behavior.

Now many people in my presentations who are socially oriented are often horrified—they say, “You can’t reduce people to money!” And I’m socially motivated, too, so I get that, but the “right thing” has to fit his value system, not ours.

It’s helpful to learn as much as you can about the other person’s values, and view these situations through these lenses, because people change when the change benefits them according to their values, not yours.


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