September 1, 2022

How to Handle Conflict/Conflict Resolution

by Mike O'Neill

It’s critical to manage conflicts to ensure they are settled and managed so that both parties understand how to resolve the dispute. So what does the employer do? The employer's role is significant but grounded in creating a workplace culture to prevent conflict and provide tools and training to help resolve disputes together.

The basis of a culture designed to prevent conflict is fairness, trust, and mutual respect at all levels. This article walks you through how to handle conflict in the workplace and create the culture and methods to minimize the impact on the business, and help employees learn how to resolve conflict. 

What Causes Workplace Conflict?

There are many causes of workplace conflict. Some of the most common reasons are:

  • Opposing positions
  • Competitiveness
  • Power struggles
  • Ego, pride, and jealousy
  • Compensation
  • Performance issues
  • Having a bad day or being in a bad mood

While this may lead you to conclude that pretty much anything and everything can create conflict, the reality is that most conflict is either created by poor communication or the inability to control emotions. Let’s take a look at the major causes of conflict.

Communication

Look back to conflicts you’ve encountered. You’ll see many were caused by lack of information, wrong information, and misinformation. For example, if you received good information but didn’t know what to do with it. This still indicates a communication problem that can lead to conflict. Providing clear, concise, and accurate communication of information helps ease conflicts.

Emotion

Letting emotions drive decisions is another common mistake in the workplace. Even executives place feelings over achieving the company’s mission. You’ve likely seen an employee in a fit of rage and draw a line in the sand in the heat of the moment. This is a prime example of a person using emotions rather than logic.

Managing Workplace Conflict

Even with systems in place to minimize conflict and create a culture of open and honest communication, organizations will still experience it. While creating a conflict resolution structure is important, it’s ultimately up to all parties involved to understand how conflict resolution benefits them and their eagerness to resolve the issue. The following tips will help you handle conflicts effectively:

1. Define Appropriate Behavior

Defining appropriate behavior is a positive step, but additional measures must be implemented. For example, creating a framework for decision making, encouraging sound business practices, fostering collaboration, team building, leadership development, and talent management all work to avoid conflict. In addition, having clearly defined job descriptions help people understand the expectations for their role, and creating a chain of command to encourage effective communication also helps avoid conflict. Finally, recognize what will and won’t be tolerated publicly, so each individual understands appropriate behaviors.

2. Address Conflict Head-on

You can’t always prevent conflicts; the best way to resolve disputes is by proactively intervening fairly and decisively. However, when you address conflict, head-on, you can prevent certain conflicts from ever occurring. That way, when a conflict does happen, you can minimize the severity by dealing with it quickly. In addition, spending time identifying and understanding natural tensions helps to avoid unnecessary conflict.

3. Understand The What’s In It For Me (WIIFM) Factor

Identify and understand employees' WIIFM position when approaching conflict. It’s critical to understand the motivation behind the conflict before weighing in on the issue. If you approach conflict with the perspective of taking action to help others achieve their goals, you find fewer obstacles standing in your way when resolving the conflict.

4. Pick Your Battles

If the issue or situation is important enough, people will do what is needed to open lines of communication to close the gaps in position and philosophy. Avoid conflict for the sake of conflict and examine the importance and severity of the issue at hand.

5. Conflict Is Opportunity

Almost every conflict has the potential for a teaching or learning opportunity. When people disagree, there’s potential for encouraging growth and development. For example, if you’re a CEO and do not leverage conflict for team building and leadership development, you miss out on a great opportunity. Different positions, when appropriately addressed, stimulate innovation and learning in ways you can’t even imagine. Wise leaders consider the upside in differing opinions and ideas.

Resolving Conflict

Once you’ve created an environment and practices  to alleviate conflict, it’s time to consider conflict resolution. How you resolve conflict in the corporate world helps distinguish a good business from a bad one. A business with constant and unresolved conflict creates a hostile work environment and affects everyone from the top down. So, what steps should be followed to resolve conflicts?

1. Understand The Nature Of The Conflict

It’s tempting to make assumptions about a conflict, especially if rumors are being passed around. But, don’t base your understanding on rumors. Instead, get to the bottom of the disagreement between employees. First, if you’re working on an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issue, like workplace harassment, check your company’s harassment prevention guidelines if you haven’t already. If you don’t have these policies in place, make them a priority to add to your employee handbook. Remember, it’s not the intent of the behavior. It’s how it is perceived.

Once you’ve ruled out any EEOC issues, look for other underlying circumstances causing the conflict or making it worse. Ask yourself a few questions to gain clarity:

  • Do each individual’s work styles clash?
  • Are employees in a high-stress environment?
  • Is there a project creating tight deadlines?
  • Are they dealing with a difficult client?
  • Are others spreading gossip or bullying coworkers?

Answering these questions may expose factors causing hostility and conflict between coworkers. Getting a pulse on what’s at the center of the problem is crucial to finding a successful resolution and avoiding future conflict.

2. Encourage Employees To Find A Solution

Employees should be as self-sufficient as possible. You’re the supervisor or manager, not their parent. Remember, reacting to every employee complaint can heighten the drama, make situations worse, and cause employees to feel that you’re picking favorites. However, that doesn’t mean that encouraging employees to manage issues independently won’t take some facilitating from you. Recognize that some employees avoid confrontation and keep their complaints to themselves, causing resentment and, eventually, burnout.

The first step to encouraging employees to work out the conflict on their own is to provide guidance or talking points to help each individual approach the other positively. Don’t set the expectation that you’re fixing the problem. Instead, facilitate the discussion and let them work together to find a resolution.

Use your best judgment when addressing employee conflict. A structured approach often reveals the best way to handle an issue.

1. Determine if the situation is emotionally charged to define the severity of the problem.

2. After assessing the issue, talk to each employee individually and let them know you’re aware of the situation.

3. Encourage open communication and resolution between the employees involved. Make sure they’re comfortable handling the disagreement one-on-one. If not, facilitate the discussion to make everyone feel comfortable sharing their side of the conflict.

Conflict resolution doesn’t always mean you end up with an agreement. Sometimes it’s better to respectfully agree to disagree. When that happens, employees need to acknowledge that there’s a difference of opinion and come up with a solution together on how to move forward. Make sure to keep the focus of resolution on behavior and problems rather than the people involved.

3. Resolve It Quickly

Some situations just won’t work themselves out, forcing you to step in and help find a resolution. If ignored, disputes can make their way through the workplace and may lower the reputation of your company. When you ignore a problem, other employees are unintentionally drawn into it. Allowing an “employee sideshow” results in lowered productivity and higher stress.

Get to the root of the problem and nip it in the bud before a landslide of negativity starts. Send a clear message to all employees that they will be held accountable for their behavior. Set the expectation that if established policies aren’t followed, it may lead to disciplinary action.

4. Hear Both Sides

If you have to get involved, start by ignoring any gossip buzzing around the workplace, and don’t put any stock in what you hear. Instead, deal with the individuals or groups of people directly involved and worry about other employees later. Ask each person responsible to explain their side of the story and let them know you acknowledge the issue and are actively listening to their side.

Evaluate the degree of hostility between the parties to determine if you should meet together or separately to hear both sides. Remember, you’re discussing facts, not emotions. If you find that speaking to the employees at the same time works best, provide each uninterrupted time to state the facts on their side of the story. Once they’ve all had the opportunity to present the information, ask them to discuss ideas to resolve the situation and move forward. Just remember, whatever you do, don’t take sides. Taking sides will only make matters worse, and as a leader, you need to stay as objective as possible. 

To successfully resolve conflict, it’s critical to train supervisors and managers to assist in conflict resolution and coach employees to find a mutual agreement. If managers aren’t trained properly, they can make the situation worse, creating low morale, disengaged employees, and increased turnover.

5. Get To The Bottom Of The Issue

Most often, the cause of arguments between employees is clouded by emotion. When issues are brought to a manager’s attention, the employees may feel defensive and angry. In this instance, slow things down and listen. Encourage each individual to explain the issue calmly and get to the bottom of the issue to find a permanent solution that mitigates the potential for the same problem to happen in the future. If you don’t feel that you can be objective or aren't comfortable doing this yourself, working with your HR department will help you handle the situation and learn skills for future conflict resolution.

6. Find A Solution

No one expects employees to be best friends. They just need to work together and get the job done.  Help them learn the difference between good and bad conflict and encourage open communication between employees. You may need to implement organizational changes to improve employee focus and workplace dynamics by reorganizing teams. Reorganizing teams may be an extreme solution; sometimes, employees need time to cool off before working together again. Remember, you have a business to run; if the conflict continues, it can seriously affect productivity and performance. Know when it’s time to reevaluate staff and make organizational changes. One antagonistic employee can bring the whole house down.

7. Put It In Writing

You must document any workplace incident to monitor behavior over time and identify repeat offenders that, if left unchecked, can negatively impact the workplace. Documentation protects your business from potential lawsuits by a disgruntled employee. Keep to the facts when writing up the incident and leave emotion out. Include the steps taken to resolve the issue and the final resolution. Ensure the incident record is placed in the employee’s HR file for future reference if additional problems arise. 

8. Communication Training

Sometimes talking out a situation isn’t enough. Most employees with conflict issues have communication issues already. If you notice a lot of discord between groups, it’s time to teach some basic communication and problem-solving techniques. Your HR team likely has resources for training and encouraging constructive conversation to alleviate future conflicts.

9. Lead By Example

Set the standard for your employees and lead by example. Build a culture of engaged employees who respect each other and can work together. Speak to employees honestly and respectfully to create an environment that fosters communication and integrity. Employees are more likely to follow your example when you reinforce and uphold your company values, policies, and guidelines objectively.

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