Conflict Resolution in the Workplace

Conflict Resolution in the Workplace

Conflict in the workplace is inevitable. Problems often begin with simple misunderstandings, poor communication or lack of knowledge about the role and job responsibilities of another. If managed properly, conflict can actually strengthen a company and its employees. It must be positively channeled into friendly competition or an activity that redirects the participants focus away from disagreement and towards a common denominator, typically the success of the company. Constructive conflict can actually result in cooperation, greater engagement, collective focus on problem-solving and a focus on the issues, NOT personalities.

Unfortunately most of the time it tends to unravel and deteriorate. If ignored or mishandled, conflict at work can escalate quickly. It will poison morale, disrupt teams, lower productivity, drive good employees out the door and lead to grievances and possibly even violence.

Causes of Conflict Conflicts occur for many reasons:

    • Strong disagreement on a specific issue
    • Different work styles or approaches
    • Competition (for promotions etc.) or “power struggles”
    • Personal dislike or incompatibility
    • People feel ignored or overlooked

Some specific behavior such as anti-social behavior would include gossiping, ostracizing or ignoring other workers, or unprofessional behavior. This is not to be tolerated. How individuals get along with each other is part of every job performance and they must understand their accountability for cooperation. Since everyone on a team is unique, they are going to have different approaches. This is where the leader must develop the appreciation of diversity in the individual team members.

To perform effectively, a team needs to operate as a unified group and these causes of conflict must be identified and eliminated as quickly as possible.

What Is Conflict Resolution?

Supervisors and human resources are expected to have the skills to intervene at times when employees can’t or won’t resolve issues themselves. These issues may be major disruptions or petty disagreements. It is not uncommon for management to step in and begin to take a micromanaging, parental approach towards the employees. While this may temporarily resolve the issue in the short-term, it doesn’t solve the problem in the long-term.

Management’s goal is to eliminate the root cause of the conflict. The right solutions take time and attention and the ultimate goal is to resolve and eliminate future conflicts and create a positive, cooperative work environment.

When Management Must Step In

Managers must step in if it becomes apparent that employees are having issues and not taking steps to resolve the problems. When problems spill over into the work environment, everyone becomes affected and productivity and service may be compromised. Conflict between employees can severely impact the perception of vendors and customers, influencing their desire to do business with the company.

Of course, if at any time a manager becomes aware that unlawful or sexual harassment is occurring, they must immediately notify Human Resources.

The Necessary Management Skills

If a manager intends to effectively resolve conflict, they will need to possess four key skills.

1. Interpersonal skills.

Interpersonal skills are the foundation of professional relationships at work. How one manages their emotions directly corresponds to how others perceive their leadership capabilities. This is called EQ, or Emotional Quotient. Where IQ measures a person’s ability to solve problems, EQ measures an individual’s ability to manage emotions. To be effective, managers must have the ability to effectively express their emotions and feelings towards others in a socially adept manner and learn how to apply the most positive and professional interpersonal skills possible.

2. Communication skills

When management must address issues or problems at work, they must adopt a clear, courteous and direct communication style. To successfully reduce conflict and misunderstandings, employees should be encouraged to communication professionally at all times, and their supervisor should be the role model.

Leadership sets the tone and teaching through example is a powerful educational tool. Supervisors and managers would be well-served to create a “communication tool kit” which would include several sentences to start difficult conversations and several open-ended questions to use during conversations to draw out information, encourage participation and develop deeper understandings.

3. Problem Solving Skills

When presented with a problem or a conflict, it is common to ask, “What should I do?” This typically places the supervisor in the middle of the chaos and their ability to objectively view the situation see is compromised. Instead of asking, “What should I do?” ask “What is going on here?” By taking this approach they have extracted themselves from the chaos and are now an outside observer. This enables them more rapidly prioritize and act.

4. Empathy skills

Empathy is not about FEELING the same way another person feels. It is about UNDERSTANDING why that individual, from their perspective, feels the way they do. This is the social competence portion of EQ. When an individual believes their manager understands what drives them, they are more inclined to be open to guidance. Being empathetic means that while the manager may not have those same feelings, they recognize they are important to the employee. This is the basis of respect and a good foundation for improved communication, increased cooperation and a willingness to solve problems.

When Must managers step in

Managers must step in if it becomes apparent that employees are having issues and not taking steps to resolve the problems. When problems spill over into the work environment, everyone becomes affected and productivity and service are clearly compromised. Conflict between employees can severely impact the perception of vendors and customers, obviously influencing their desire to do business with the company.

Of course, if at anytime a manager becomes aware that unlawful or sexual harassment is occurring, they must immediately notify Human Resources.

In fact, for those of you in California, a bill known as AB2053 was passed and will go into effect in January of 2015. It now requires that “Abusive Conduct” as defined by the state be included in the mandatory sexual harassment training. This bill does not make bullying at work illegal, but as trainers we are now required to put management and employees on notice through training, that this behavior should NOT be tolerated by the employer, no matter who is the perpetrator. In other words, there is a much stronger push towards professionalism at work. This would certainly include how employees cooperate with each other and how conflict is managed at work.

Solution Options

Constructive Confrontation

This approach works best when applied to conflicts that are spontaneous, emotionally-charged, demand quick, often “out-in-the open” solutions

  • Analyze before intervening
  • “What’s going on here?”
  • State the reason for the intervention and be specific
  • Lay out the ground rules
  • Remain objective
  • Don’t offer judgments but do ask about each individual’s feelings
  • State the need for different conduct and specifically the consequences of continued conflict
  • Ask the participants to BOTH provide solutions to avoid or improve the unacceptable behavior in the future
  • Encourage 2 and 3-way communication
  • Obtain an agreement from both that they will jointly develop a solution, and have a follow-up date for review

You may only have a few moments to assess the situation, so you want to observe, listen carefully and do not judge. Ask that question “What’s going on here”? Take the participants to your office, do not hash this out in public.

No matter what the cause of the conflict, explain clearly why you have called them into the office. State exactly what the problem behavior is (arguing in public for instance) and how it affects the performance of each of them as well as all the others.

Lay out the ground rules: you are the manager and a neutral 3rd party. Tell them that. Clearly explain that no one is allowed to blame or accuse the other, you want a discussion about the issue not a brawl. No yelling, profanity or shouting. When one individual is talking you expect the other to listen respectfully, no interruptions. Each will have an opportunity to speak. The solution, and there will be one, must be a mutually cooperative one. In other words, you are the moderator of this debate if you will

Through open-ended questions determine specifically what brought about this conflict.

Ask each how they feel about that situation and why. It is reasonable for them to say they re angry, but we will not tolerate outbursts. You may tell an individual you understand they are angry but avoid expressing agreement or disagreement about those feelings because that will appear as if you are taking sides

Make your suggestions about alternate behavior specific. For example: I would like you both to reach a solution that most effectively meets the goals of the company with little to no arguing. I expect professional demeanor at all times in the future”

Be very clear about the consequences if this unacceptable behavior continues. This could include disciplinary action up to and including termination. There is zero tolerance for unprofessional, uncooperative behavior at work.

Ask each what conditions they feel must change to accommodate their goals and interests. Get from each, what they envision as a solution. Let them know if you feel the solutions are reasonable and consistent with the spirit of cooperation and problem solving you are expecting from each of them. Let them know if the solutions supports the needs of the company.

We want each person to participate, this is a must and that means each must be given an opportunity to state the case, voice opinions, make suggestions and fully understand what is being stated.

Help develop a plan that will be reasonable to all parties and that will eliminate future conflicts. Obtain an agreement, put it in writing if you feel that is necessary and set up a date in the near future to evaluate and assess the effectiveness of the plan. It is important that both parties, if possible, must feel like a co-author in this solution.

Behavior Modification

  • Less confrontational, it shares many of the same characteristics as Constructive Confrontation.
  • It helps to draw out and remove objections in the mind of each of the employees, causing conflict resolution and changes in behavior
  • Is more “in-depth” an approach
  • Ask each party to identify and describe the issues that divide them
  • Actively listen (do not offer comments, opinions or value judgments)
  • Have questions prepared to guide the conversation if necessary
  • Have EACH employee repeat the OTHER person’s point of view AND have each acknowledge the accuracy of the restatement
  • Have the employees define areas of agreement and similarity, such as opinions, goals, positions
  • Have the employees define areas of difference
  • Ask each participant to suggest ways to resolve these differences and develop a plan of remedial action to avoid future problems
  • Come to an agreement about the steps each person will take together and separately
  • Summarize the agreement, put it in writing and set a follow-up date

Now continue on, asking each to suggest solutions and methods to overcome the differences. Ask them to develop a plan that will avoid this type of conflict in the future. Clearly this isn’t a twenty minute meeting, but the long term benefits are well worth the invested time. This should also be agreed upon, documented and yes, I feel each should sign this agreement.

As you are facilitating these meetings watch the behavior. Are the parties genuinely trying or providing token service? Does it appear that one or both are holding back and fully opening up? Body language will provide a great deal of insight at this time. Using your open-ended questions, tap into any areas you feel may not be genuine and try to elicit sincere and honest commitments. Clarify, work with both and always remain neutral with the goals of the company the foremost priority.

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