What exactly is “conflict”?
A simple but useful definition is: a disagreement which causes in each of the affected persons, organizations or groups a perception that their physical or emotional needs, interests or concerns are threatened.
It is this threat element that makes a conflict more significant than a simple “I like chocolate, you like vanilla” difference of opinion.
As with a threat of physical harm, conflicts trigger in humans a so-called “fight or flight” emotional response. Some people respond to conflicts by fighting – becoming angry and defensive – while others “flee”, removing themselves emotionally or even physically from the situation.
Conflict in the Workplace
Some level of conflict between team members and between managers and employees is an unavoidable part of almost every workplace. Fortunately, many disagreements are minor and soon forgotten, and an effective manager recognizes when he or she can afford to simply overlook a conflict or rely on the parties to resolve it on their own.
When a conflict is more serious or persistent, however, the “flight” response – ignoring the conflict or hoping it will go away – is rarely the best course of action for you as a manager or employer. Left unresolved, serious conflicts can undermine morale, cause excessive turnover, lead to legal claims and, in extreme cases, even result in violence.
When resolved constructively, however, conflict can increase understanding of other persons’ viewpoints, build trust, and strengthen workplace relationships. As an employer or manager, how you deal with conflicts among co-workers, between managers and employees, and even between employees and vendors or customers can have a significant impact on your company’s success.
Effective Workplace Conflict Resolution
Do you know the keys to effective conflict resolution in your workplace? There’s no single correct approach, but studies have identified common elements of successful workplace conflict resolution strategies. You will need to both practice these and encourage others to do so. You’ll also need to get agreement up front to some basic “ground rules” and enforce them – politely but assertively – when necessary. These include basic etiquette such as listening to each other and not interrupting and avoiding personal attacks or abusive or profane language.
The old adage about there being two sides to every story almost always applies in conflict situations. Before you try to resolve a problem, be sure you have examined the roots of the conflict objectively and thoroughly. Avoid the temptation to jump to conclusions regarding fault or to “take sides”. Be honest about your own feelings, too. If you find you’re struggling to remain neutral, consider asking another manager or even a trained facilitator to take your place. Encourage each of the parties to acknowledge the validity of the other’s point of view.
Acknowledge the Problem
This can be especially difficult when the conflict is over what you consider a minor or even a petty issue. Remember that what seems like a minor annoyance to you is probably a significant issue to the people who are in conflict. Be careful to avoid minimizing or belittling the severity of the issue and take time to acknowledge its importance. Maintain a neutral tone of voice, avoiding sarcasm or judgmental language, and encourage the parties to the dispute to do the same. Remember that nonverbal communication such as facial expressions or posture can also speak volumes about your reaction to a particular statement.
Focus On the Problem, Not the People
Virtually every workplace has “difficult” employees. Indeed, these may be the individuals often in conflict with co-workers or managers. As the conflict resolution facilitator, it’s crucial that you and the parties look beyond difficult or disagreeable personalities and focus instead on the problem at hand. Do not use accusatory language or engage in personal attacks, and intercede if the parties do so. Let the parties know that you believe they’re motivated by good intentions rather than a desire to “get” each other.
Discourage the parties’ use of absolute terms to describe behavior (“You always do X”; “You never do Y”) and encourage them to make so-called “I” or “me” statements to express their feelings - “When you do X it makes me feel I am being ignored”.
Parties to a conflict frequently suffer from “tunnel vision”, focusing only on how the problem affects them. As a facilitator, you can help them see the “big picture” of how their conflict is affecting their co-workers, customers, or the organization in general.
Seek Common Ground
Although there are many recognized conflict resolution models, the most successful in workplace settings are those that encourage the parties to identify areas of agreement and use those as a basis for creating an acceptable compromise solution. Naturally, not every conflict can be resolved by the parties themselves, and a management-imposed solution may be required. However, when the parties can craft their own, it is more likely to succeed in the long term than one dictated by management.
Be sure to complement – publicly if it’s possible to do so without violating the parties’ privacy rights – each of the parties for their maturity and dedication when they are able to reach a mutually acceptable compromise.
Be Patient, But Decisive
Patience is critical. People in conflict need to tell their stories. If you make a hasty decision, at least one party (and possibly both!) will feel they haven’t been heard. Once an acceptable solution has been determined, however, management needs to move decisively to implement whatever changes are called for.
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