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Conflict Resolution in the Workplace

Tension within the workplace is natural and some conflict is bound to occur. Though some managers may confuse dispute prevention with conflict management, there’s a great deal more to the process of conflict resolution in the workplace than simply stifling conflict at source.

Instead, managers need to develop mechanisms that allow for differences to be resolved. Ultimately, the aim is to create a work environment in which unnecessary conflict is prevented and where inevitable conflicts occur within an established framework that facilitates positive outcomes. After all, tension can be put to use as a creative force, helping us to develop innovative solutions to challenging problems.

With this in mind, we take an in-depth look at conflict resolution in the workplace and what you can do to improve the way your organisation handles disputes.

First steps – identifying types of conflict in the work environment

The work environment is brimming with possible conflicts. Managers and HR can better prepare themselves to handle these conflicts if they understand when, where, how, and why they occur.

Developing this type of knowledge gives you the means by which to create comprehensive

conflict management policies that encompass the vast majority of disputes.

  • The types of conflict that are likely to occur in a workplace differ from business to business and industry to industry.

  • They can be a result of a combination of unique employee personalities or the product of structural issues that occur repeatedly in businesses of a similar nature. For instance, all call centres are likely to encounter and have to diffuse conflict with irate customers on a regular basis.

  • If you’re to develop an appropriate response to conflict resolution in the workplace, it’s a good idea to first carry out a conflict risk assessment. This will involve examining the when, where, how and why of historical conflicts, whilst also looking at potential future disputes.

  • When carrying out such an assessment, it’s often helpful to look at every instance in which individuals interact on an ongoing basis to see if there’s a potential source of tension.

Understanding what conflict resolution in the workplace can do for you

Managers need to understand that conflict is a natural occurrence within the workplace and that the way that their procedures around conflict resolution in the workplace will determine whether a positive outcome is likely. Conflict resolution has two principal aims:

  1. To prevent unnecessary conflict.

  2. To ensure that when conflict does arise, it’s handled in a sensitive and tactful manner that helps produce a constructive result.

Once this distinction is made, it’s possible to differentiate between types of conflict and respond appropriately.

  • In some instances, putting preventative measures in place will ensure that small, unhelpful disputes do not become something bigger and more problematic.

  • In other cases, it will be necessary to utilise certain processes in response to conflict.

  • These processes aim to reduce tensions, diffuse conflict and, where possible, come to a resolution that’s acceptable to all parties and is beneficial to the organisation as a whole.

Minimising Unnecessary Conflict – Taking a Preventative Approach

Putting preventative measures into place ensures that all employees understand the rules under which they’re working, reduces the chance of small-scale conflicts becoming damaging, larger issues, and allows senior staff to focus their attention and efforts on more worthwhile issues.

Preventative measures can take many different forms. However, at its most basic, a preventative policy will involve implementing the following three steps.

1. Staff Training – Training can be used in two different, but equally important, ways. First, if employees are to perform their job to a satisfactory level, they’ll require specialist training to do so. A considerable amount of conflict is the result of individuals not performing to the standard expected of them – training can help mitigate this. Second, staff can receive specific conflict awareness training to help them better cope with disputes in the workplace.

2. The Workplace Environment – We spend a considerable amount of time in the work environment, so it should come as no surprise that it can have a drastic effect on our mental state. Cramped office spaces with poor lighting and distracting noise are likely to increase the amount of conflict in the workplace. Changes to the environment can have the opposite effect.

3. Job Roles – Businesses are not perfectly designed organisations and structure is at the root of many conflicts. This is most apparent when two individuals’ jobs and responsibilities overlap, potentially causing tension between two different approaches. Changing roles and adapting positions to ensure that this tension does not become a problem is an effective means of reducing conflict. However, it is best carried out in consultation with the individuals affected by the changes.

Responding to conflict – developing reactive processes

As well as introducing preventative measures to ensure the smooth running of the organisations, businesses also need to develop processes that allow them to handle unavoidable workplace conflict. Not all conflict is preventable and disputes can often result in positive outcomes – if handled well. However, handled improperly, these same disputes are expensive, time-consuming, and detrimental to both productivity and team morale.

As the workplace is no stranger to conflict, professionals have dedicated serious time to analysing the ways in which disputes can be resolved in the most effective manner possible. This means that there are a number of existing processes available to those in leadership positions. They include:

1. Informal Discussions

2. Mediation

3. Arbitration

4. Conciliation

Though these techniques differ in methodology, their objective is the same – to resolve the conflict in a way that respects the desires of all parties involved and that is beneficial to the organisation as a whole.

It is important to recognise that effective conflict resolution considers the needs of all individuals and groups involved in a dispute. More often than not, if one party feels as though the dispute management process is biased towards the other, it will only lay the foundations for greater conflict in the future.

The four main conflict management tools at your disposal

1. Informal discussions can be a useful first step if those in leadership roles believe the issue can be resolved with a little help from someone in a position of authority. All it takes for many employees to set aside their differences and reach a sensible resolution is for management to intervene and gently push for a conclusion.

2. Mediation is the process by which a mediator – a professional trained in the discipline of conflict resolution – is introduced to manage discussions between the parties involved in a dispute. Their role is to guide the individuals towards a resolution, without the mediator making a decision themselves.

3. Conciliation is a similar process to mediation, with one important difference. As well as guiding the discussions in the right direction, the conciliator will make a recommendation as to the action that should be taken to resolve the conflict. While neither party is under any obligation to follow this recommendation, they are strongly encouraged to do so.

4. Arbitration takes the formalisation of these discussions one step further, introducing a legal dimension to proceedings. When a conflict is brought to arbitration, both sides typically agree that the decision of the arbitrator will be legally binding. All parties then submit their arguments. They will often be represented by a lawyer or legal representative when doing so. With all evidence submitted, the arbitrator will come to a decision that all parties are obliged to respect.

Looking back – establishing the cause of conflict

As with all aspects of business, it’s important to look back on conflicts that have taken place within the business to see what you can learn from them. Those responsible for resolving the conflict should focus on two main factors.

  • Could the manner in which the conflict was handled be improved in any way?

  • What was the root cause of the conflict?

The first question is important due to the way in which it encourages self-reflection. This is a necessary step toward self-improvement and will ensure you continue to learn and develop as a leader. However, it can also be a good idea to ask a superior for their opinion on your performance.

The second question helps you better understand how to prevent similar disputes in the future. Though the root cause may be difficult to identify at first, there are a number of common factors responsible for many of the conflicts that occur in workplaces. They include:

  • A clash of personalities

  • Miscommunication

  • A lack of support

  • Competition over shared or limited resources

  • The absence of guiding authority

  • Harassment and bullying

While this list is by no means exhaustive, it does cover some of the principal causes of conflict at work. Having identified the cause, management can ensure appropriate preventative measures are in place or that their reactive measures are sufficiently comprehensive.

How to encourage communication with an open-door policy

Though most capable team leaders and managers will have a good understanding of what their employees are experiencing on a day-to-day basis, they need to recognise that this doesn’t mean they’ll immediately hear of every dispute that takes place in the office. It’s only natural that there exists some disconnect between those in a senior position and those they’re responsible for.

  • If those in senior positions are to remain informed about conflicts in the work environment, their staff need to feel as though they are welcome to speak to them at any time, on any subject. This open-door policy ensures that those employees who are concerned by others’ actions can openly discuss the issue.

  • Not only does this increase the number of incidents that are reported (giving managers a clearer picture of what’s going on in the workplace), it also ensures that potential problems are reported earlier, allowing them to be resolved before they grow too large.

  • Maintaining an open-door policy will also help if conflicts reach a stage where informal discussions are required. As employees will be accustomed to interacting with their manager in such a way, informal discussions won’t be perceived as a drastic intervention and can be carried out in a more relaxed, natural, and honest atmosphere. This will drastically improve the chances of success.

How to diffuse tension with a calm, problem-first approach

Just as important as an open-door policy, is the way in which you approach individuals once a dispute has been reported.

  • When faced with irate employees or customers, it’s absolutely essential that you stay calm, collected, and detached from the argument. There is nothing to be gained from becoming irate, argumentative, or aggressive yourself.

  • Similarly, conflict resolution in the workplace is best achieved by an attempt to focus on the problem, not on any individual involved. This is known as a problem-first approach.

  • Zeroing in on the problem ensures that you understand that employees have differing opinions and respect that they may approach an issue in an alternative way to others.

  • Displaying this respect for diversity of thought is integral to a healthy work environment and effective conflict management – it allows differences to be aired, discussed and resolved, rather than suppressed and left to fester.

What next?

Workplace conflict resolution is a difficult skill to develop and can require years of managerial experience to master. However, there are numerous learning opportunities and training programmes available to those who wish to become qualified mediators.

Beyond formal training, it’s vital that those in senior positions attempt to eradicate unnecessary conflict and tackle unavoidable conflicts in a way that treats it as a natural by-product of the working environment. Attempts should be made to ensure that conflicts are not made personal and that any resolution takes the needs of all parties into consideration.


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