Conflict management is recognised as a standard leadership skill. That’s because conflict in the workplace is inevitable. Wherever people are trying to accomplish anything together, or even just near each other, conflicts naturally arise. Therefore, good leadership is not in trying to figure out how to avoid workplace conflict, which actually can’t be done. It’s in understanding how to resolve conflicts in ways that preserve working relationships, cultivate collaborative skills, and promote the business’s mission. That’s something you can do very well, by developing the specific skills listed below for managing conflict in the workplace.
Why You Can’t Afford to Leave Workplace Conflict Unresolved
There are countless examples of conflict in the workplace that started out as small matters and unnecessarily escalate to become much bigger problems. The Harvard Business Review offers an enlightening discussion of several proposed general types of workplace conflict.
Many people fear any kind of conflict and will avoid engaging in it, at any cost. But, workplace conflict typically grows until it is addressed conclusively. So, what is often left by a manager ignoring festering controversies is a toxic environment of unresolved conflict.
In such an unhealthy work environment, resentments lead to more and more deeply damaged working relationships. Individual creativity is inhibited. The team’s collaborative spirit is broken. Even basic cooperation can become strained and too difficult to sustain. Discontent leads to losses of the most talented employees first.
They leave to find a more stable and secure working environment. The excessive turnover leads to diminished employee engagement, reduced efficiency of processes, productivity loss, compromised quality, dissatisfied customers, and, ultimately, reduced profitability.
Causes of Conflict
Many conflicts have their roots in communication issues or insufficient information. Other common root causes of conflict include strong differences in practical perspective, or letting emotions cloud objectivity. Still others include competitiveness, jealousy, pride, tendencies to dominate, territorial instinct, blame-shifting habits, self-serving attitudes, and occasional bad moods.
Forbes magazine offers some helpful elaboration on certain adverse attitudes and motivations that are common sources of conflict in the workplace. As a leader in resolving workplace conflict, be aware of individuals’ motivations, and work to build a workplace culture that encourages mutual support and help and a collaborative approach to problem solving.
How to Resolve Conflict in the Workplace
Here are some important tips to help you succeed in the numerous occasions you will have as a manager to take the lead in workplace conflict resolution:
1. Clarify Expectations for Behaviour.
Clarify the kinds of workplace behaviour and treatment of fellow employees that are required. Stating outright for a group what is to be understood as acceptable behaviour goes a long way in promoting that kind of behaviour in a workplace and toward minimising the potential for serious conflict. Clearly define responsibilities, the chain of command, and the policy for resolving issues.
2. Face Conflict Straightforwardly.
One important approach to conflict resolution is to identify points of likely conflict, and proactively enact a fair and workable solution, before conflict develops. Still, despite your best efforts, conflicts will arise. So, embrace conflict as a natural inevitability in your workplace, as in any other. As mentioned, the consequences of an organisational leader waiting for conflict to go away on its own can promote its worsening to a potentially much more serious situation.
3. Remain Neutral.
Be empathetic to all involved parties. Stay impartial. Do not assign blame to either party. Guide the parties to find common ground and points of agreement. Help them visualise reaching a positive outcome that will be an improvement over the situation as it was prior to addressing the issue.
4. Be Flexible and Change Tactics, as Necessary.
Proceed carefully, and choose your words well. Be mindful of phrasing that can seem insensitive, negative, condescending, or aggressive. Be sensitive to the parties’ reactions to the way you are handling management of the conflict. Maintain patience throughout the conflict resolution process, and be prepared to shift tactics as necessary during the dialogue.
5. Recognise the Opportunity in Conflict.
Conflict carries in it the natural potential for creative problem solving, development of better ways, and strengthened bonds between parties. Well-managed conflict enables resolution of unacceptable situations that exist, stimulates creative thinking, and brings parties to collaborate to resolve workplace problems.
6. Look for a Win-Win Solution.
The success of your conflict management efforts depends, first, on the involved parties appreciating the benefits of getting the conflict resolved. Before you take a position on a solution, understand the parties’ individual motivations. Choose a solution that helps both parties achieve their personal objectives in the matter. Finding a solution that satisfies both parties removes the barriers to resolving the conflict.
7. Seek a Fair, Fact-Based Resolution.
Encourage the parties to engage in an open, constructive dialogue, and guide them to participate equitably. Ensure that all parties are equally heard and that all ideas are considered. Practice your active listening skills. Ask narrow questions, to understand precisely what the specific issue is from the opposing perspectives. Respect opinions, but separate them from facts.
8. Apply Conflict Management Techniques.
Learn specific techniques for conflict resolution. For example, learn how to give the parties an opportunity to reposition their arguments, to allow them to save face. Learn to receive the complaints about the opposing parties, and reframe those as comments about the actual problem, then state the potential outcomes of leaving it unresolved vs. resolving it successfully. Develop these and other important conflict management methods.
9. Choose Your Battles Wisely.
Think about the pros and cons of approaching any given conflict. How important is the issue really? While the idea is not to dodge necessary conflict, do avoid engaging in conflict unless the matter actually needs to be resolved in order to preserve a relationship or performance. Avoid micro-managing conflict as well as you avoid any other over-management. But, don’t avoid necessary handling of real issues.
Effective Conflict Resolution in the Workplace
Approach issues with confidence that resolving conflict in the workplace is in the interest of all involved parties and all stakeholders in the business. Start the process by making clear that compromise is preferred, when reasonable, and that understanding the other person’s point of view is key to finding common ground and reaching a mutually agreeable solution. U.S. News and World Report offers some strong insights on resolving conflict by building relationships and seeking to understand the concerns of the opposing party before and during conflict.
Ultimately, if the parties are unsuccessful in following the process under your guidance and reaching a resolution that is satisfactory to all involved, then, as the leader, you can employ a fail-safe — make a decision. Decide what is the right thing to do.
Explain your reasoning, to help everyone understand your decision and to move forward. Take heart in the fact that following the above guidelines ensures that your conflict management will always be a thorough, well-executed effort that concludes with a fully-considered solution for everyone involved.
The ability to resolve conflict in the workplace does not always come naturally, even to the best managers. Many companies will put their teams through leadership training workshops that focus specifically on workplace resolution in a bid to make sure their leaders are equipped with the right tools and confidence to tackle conflict.