Conflict Resolution in the Workplace
Updated 26 February 2021
What Is Conflict?
The dictionary definition of 'conflict' is 'the opposition of persons or forces that gives rise to dramatic action'.
It is more than an argument or disagreement.
For it to be addressed as conflict, one or both parties need to feel threatened. Whether that threat is real or not is irrelevant.
A CPP study found that:
- 2.8 hours per week are spent in conflict or conflict resolution. That totals $359 billion in paid working hours.
- 60% of employees have never received conflict management training. Of those who have, 95% believe it helped them create a happier working environment.
- 85% of employees have experienced conflict, and 29% believe they are nearly constantly in conflict.
- 49% believe conflict is caused by ego and personality clashes, 34% believe it is because of workplace stress, and 33% believe workload is responsible.
Conflict isn't always a bad thing, though. In some organizations, conflict of ideas is what inspires employees towards innovation and breakthroughs.
What Is Conflict Resolution?
Conflict resolution refers to the steps that are taken to resolve conflict.
Managers or HR should step in and take control of the situation as soon as they notice conflict or an employee raises the issue.
Statistically speaking, HR only becomes aware of conflict when an employee submits their resignation. By that point, the situation is past resolution.
Conflict resolution or conflict management consists of many different methods, depending on the policy of the organization.
Some may use a checklist or system of steps, each designed to resolve the situation, yet each one more drastic than the one before.
Other organizations may adopt a hands-on approach whereby employees are regularly given the space to air their grievances.
Popular methods include:
- Staff training
- Job/role changes
- Conflict resolution policy
- Informal discussions
Successful conflict resolution is dependent on the workplace culture and the quality of the leaders.
Senior management is responsible for setting and nurturing workplace culture. It is their responsibility to take the necessary steps to keep conflict to a minimum.
What Are the Common Causes of Conflict in the Workplace?
There are many reasons why conflict can occur in the workplace. Some of the most common causes are:
- Personality clashes – When people from different countries, religions, cultures and backgrounds come together, disagreements are inevitable. However, when there is a lack of understanding or respect for the beliefs or ideas of others, it can escalate into conflict.
- Working styles – Everyone has their own way of doing things. Some like music playing in the background, others need very tidy workspaces. When a colleague constantly disrupts another's workspace, it can cause tension.
- Miscommunication – This is incredibly common in organizations that employ people from different countries and backgrounds. Not every word, phrase or gesture means the same all over the world. Sometimes things can be taken out of context. If these issues don't get resolved immediately, they can fester and grow into something bigger.
- Poor management – If a manager is not encouraging or motivating, employees feel demotivated and angry. Businesses fail to employ or promote the right managers 82% of the time. Those businesses that do employ quality managers see a 147% increase in earnings per share.
- Poorly organized workplace – This includes the distribution of tasks, level of support an employee receives and the number of resources available. If an employee feels they lack support and resources, they become angry and dissatisfied. Their anger will then be directed towards either an employee who is excelling in their career or their line manager.
What Are Some Conflict Resolution Skills?
There are several skills that come in useful when resolving conflict:
Managing Your Stress
Learning how to control your actions and emotions during stressful situations is a useful skill. Knowing how to calm yourself down and release tension will help you manage the situation better.
If you can identify your own triggers, it may help you walk away from a situation before it becomes a conflict.
Stress impedes your ability to resolve a situation by preventing you from:
- Understanding your colleague's body language
- Hearing what they are actually saying
- Being aware of your own actions, feelings and words
- Communicating effectively
Understanding a person's emotions makes conflict resolution so much easier. If you can empathize with your colleague and understand what they are feeling and why, half the situation is resolved.
If you can identify your own emotions and reasons behind the conflict, you should be able to start an open dialogue where the other person responds well to you.
Showing that you are listening reduces the speaker's stress levels as they feel that they are finally getting the attention they need.
Active listening includes:
- Nodding in the right places
- Taking notes on what you think are the key points
- Verbally confirming that you understand by paraphrasing
Mediation doesn't just involve sitting down with the people involved and getting them to talk. You need to show that you have no bias and are fair to both parties.
You should encourage the conversation without putting words in someone's mouth or saying something that escalates the conflict.
Once everything has been said, you should be able to decide an appropriate course of action and hold anyone accountable if there is someone to blame.
What Is the Best Way to Resolve Conflict?
There is no definitive set of rules to follow when resolving conflict, as every situation is different. However, as a guideline, conflict resolution should look like this:
- Schedule a meeting in a quiet, neutral place with all involved parties.
- Decide if the meeting needs a member of HR to supervise.
- At the start of the meeting, state the rules.
- Get each party to discuss the conflict and what goals they hope to achieve from the session.
- Continue the dialogue and brainstorm ideas to reach a mutual understanding.
- Continue the meeting until all parties are happy with the resolution and they have shaken on it.
- If a resolution cannot be agreed upon, involve HR (if they weren’t at the meeting) and any applicable governing bodies.
When resolving conflict, you should not:
- Take sides
- Meet with each party separately
- Hope that if you ignore it, the situation will go away
Examples of Conflict Resolution
Example 1 – Work-Based Conflict
Two colleagues, Michael and Jules, are increasingly at loggerheads regarding a company report that they both contribute to, and which needs to be submitted by Friday morning each week. Their manager, Sally, has arranged a meeting to discuss the issues.
As mediator of the meeting, Sally states the rules:
- Do not interrupt each other
- Listen and respect each person's time to talk
- No silly remarks or childish behavior
Sally then asks Michael to talk about the conflict.
Michael says that Jules has no respect for him or the workflow. Michael would like Jules to have all the needed documents sent to him by Wednesday at 2 p.m. This gives Michael enough time to add his section and double-check it before Friday morning's submission.
Sally asks Jules to describe his experience of the conflict.
Jules feels that the deadline is not reasonable as his team’s workload is too heavy. He has tried to explain this, but Michael didn't take him seriously and thinks he is just lazy. Jules would like to get the work to Michael on time but asks for the task distributions to be looked at first.
Sally then agrees to look at the workflow and distribution. Michael agrees to forgo the deadline until the workflow issue is resolved. Jules agrees to ask the right people for help as soon as they need it, not only when it becomes a bigger issue.
Michael and Jules shake hands on the agreed next steps.
Example 2 – Personality-Based Conflict
Carly and Miranda were witnessed yelling at each other in the conference room. The rest of the team claims that the two colleagues are always arguing.
Their line manager, Mark, asks the two women to meet him in the cafeteria before the start of the next working day.
Once there, Mark buys the three of them a coffee and a pastry. He explains that they are there to talk about their evident conflict.
Mark explains that both Carly and Miranda will have the chance to talk and not interrupt while the other is talking. He also explains that their arguments cause tension in the team and therefore affect productivity. No one will leave until a resolution is agreed upon.
Carly explains that she feels Miranda is rude, bossy and condescending. She doesn't like how Miranda talks to her and her colleagues. Carly further explains that she thinks Miranda is under the impression she is better than everyone else.
Carly says that she didn't mean to raise her voice at Miranda, but she had had enough of her attitude.
When it is Miranda’s turn to talk, she explains that she doesn't mean to sound rude or bossy; she is just a straightforward person. She says she didn't realize it was upsetting so many people. Miranda further explains that this job is extremely important to her, and there is pressure to succeed.
Sometimes she is so driven to get the work done well that she forgets to be personable.
The three continue their discussion about their own career goals and home lives. Miranda agrees to work on her communication and asks that Carly gently reminds her when she goes too far.
The two women shake hands on the agreed way forward.
Example 3 – Leadership-Based Conflict
Team B's work output, led by Julia, has seen a decline over the past three months. The team of four is asked to meet with HR in the main conference room.
Head of HR, Sam, asks the team why their productivity has fallen.
Julia instantly replies:
- It is the team's fault – they are easily distracted and incompetent
- She has done everything she can to improve their output
- The team doesn't like her very much, probably because she is a female team leader
The team's response is:
- Julia operates like a dictator, telling them when they can have breaks and go for lunch
- She makes comments about how many times someone leaves their desk
- The work tasks are distributed as Julia sees fit, not according to talent and preference, and once she has decided, no one is allowed to change
- Julia never has anything positive to say
- Only negative feedback is given, and it is shared mockingly with the whole team
Julia responds that her leadership style has a proven track record and if they don't like it, they should leave.
Both parties can agree on one thing: neither wants to work with the other.
As this is not an issue that can be amicably resolved, Sam takes an executive decision.
She decides that Julia will head another team under probation. The feedback she receives from that team will determine whether Julia needs more training or whether she would be better suited in another position.
Team B's productivity will be closely monitored and, if it doesn't improve, they might be reassigned.
Preventative Measures for Workplace Conflict
To prevent a situation from becoming a conflict, there are several things an organization can do:
- Make changes in the workplace – This could be anything from rearranging the desks to improving health and safety.
- Change job roles – Sometimes a team just does not click. Moving employees to different departments or trialing them in different roles could break up tensions.
- Invest in training – Good training programs are proven to improve the workplace environment. Programs focused on recognizing and resolving conflict may lead to employees solving their own issues.
- Implement a policy – Implement a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to conflict and abusive behavior.
Workplace disagreements are nothing unusual. Every workplace has them and, in some instances, they encourage product breakthroughs.
However, when it escalates and becomes a conflict, it can directly impact a business's operations. If the conflict cannot be resolved and a party wants to take the issue further, it can cost a company thousands of dollars.
To prevent a situation from reaching the stage of intervention:
- Create a healthy corporate culture
- Invest in training programs
- Take the time to recruit good leaders and managers