If you're an even mildly ambitious worker, odds are you're interested in building your skills--whether you're a millennial or any demographic.

I'm just as interested, so when new research surfaced on soft skills needed in today's business world, it caught my attention.

A new study from Udemy outlined the top soft skills needed in 2019, and the number one answer surprised me a bit.

Conflict management.

No one ever promised you a rose garden at work, but I had no idea how prevalent an issue workplace conflict has become. Research among 5,000 employees shows that the average employee spends almost three hours a week dealing with conflict management in some form (like personal attacks, unhealthy debate or disagreements, bullying, or project failure). HR spends five hours a week on such tension. An astounding $359 billion paid hours at work are annually spent dealing with this issue.

This deserves a deeper look on many levels. The research indicates that the primary causes of workplace conflict are:

  • Personality clashes and warring egos (49 percent)
  • Stress (34 percent)
  • Heavy workloads (33 percent)

Stress and heavy workloads link to many workplace problems, not just workplace conflict. But that first one, personalities and egos bashing up against one another, uniquely contributes to corrosive conflict.

I lost track of the number of times I witnessed a project stall or meetings go off the rails because of something deeper, more personal, underlying what should have been a simple debate/exchange.

Now, lest we totally demonize conflict, it can be good, even necessary, at work. It helps get "the 800 lb. gorilla" on the table, it enables better understanding of one another and improves relationships, and can lead to better, more innovative solutions to a problem/challenge.

The best, most successful teams I ever worked on weren't free from conflict--just the opposite. Conflict was used as a way to quickly move onward and upward with more energy, clarity, and alignment.

Which leads us to the next, most important part. Here's what you can do to address unproductive conflict more effectively:

1. Don't get caught in "competitive arousal."

This is a term coined by Harvard Business School's Deepak Malhotra. It describes a state in which the desire to "win at any cost" dominates. As Malhotra says in his book, Negotiation Genius, "When we see our adversaries not just as opponents but as enemies, we often lose sight of our real objective. A new objective emerges: to beat the other side, whatever the cost." That cost often involves burning bridges, which never, ever, leads to anything good (beyond the very short-term sense of satisfaction from "unloading").

I've experienced this, where the plot got further and further away as I focused on just getting the better of a particularly combative co-worker. It went nowhere good, fast.

2. Mediate, don't meander.

It's your job as a leader to not let conflict devolve to poison. Don't beat around the bush or look the other way--get right after unhealthy conflict when it arises. Especially in the case of toxic individuals. Not addressing the "problem children" can have a disastrous impact on the morale of all the high-performing collaborators.

3. Believe that the truth lies somewhere in between.

Whenever an employee would come to me with a gripe about a co-worker or an event that occurred, 90 percent of the time I discovered that what happened wasn't exactly as had been described to me. Nor did the other side represent it entirely accurately, either. The truth lay somewhere in the middle. Almost always.

Understanding that as a mediator or as someone actually in the conflict can help you be more intentional about not warping your own point of view or perception of things.

4. Unearth the emotions.

Conflict almost always has underlying emotions involved. Start there to understand what those emotions are and why they're occurring. Let an understanding of underlying emotions provide clarity to an issue, not cloud it.

I try to start with why a person feels the way he/she does before I react to what they feel.

5. Know what you don't like about yourself and have compassion accordingly.

We don't like in others what we don't like about ourselves. Conflict is often born from lashing out at your own imperfections being played right back at you. Be aware of this phenomenon and have compassion for yourself and those like you.

Don't let the soft skill of conflict management make life hard. Apply this advice liberally.

Published on: Feb 26, 2019
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