Conflict in the workplace arises for various reasons, such as differences in opinions, communication breakdowns, power struggles, or competition for resources. If left unresolved, it can harm the organization, resulting in reduced productivity, low morale, increased absenteeism and turnover, and reputational damage. Thus, effective conflict resolution in the workplace—which includes gathering information, exploring solutions, and following up—is essential for employee management and maintaining a healthy work environment.
Step 1: Acknowledge the Conflict
Acknowledging the existence of a conflict is an essential step in resolving it effectively. By admitting a problem, the parties involved can start working toward a solution.
Simple acknowledgment allows people to express their feelings and concerns, understand each other’s perspectives, and identify the root cause of the conflict. In doing so, they can also identify any assumptions or biases they may have and work to overcome them.
According to the Conflict Solution Center, 30% to 40% of a manager’s daily activities involve conflict management and resolution.
Step 2: Gather Information
After acknowledging the conflict, the next step is gathering information from multiple sources. It may come from documentation, observations, and interviews with other team members.
When gathering information, it is crucial to do so in a way that does not cause suspicion or animosity among your employees. Here are some things to keep in mind:
- Avoid making assumptions about the conflict and the people involved. Instead, approach the situation with an open mind and consider different perspectives.
- Taking sides or showing favoritism is antithetical to effectively resolving conflict. Stay neutral and focus on understanding the underlying issues and concerns.
- Avoid blaming individuals for the conflict. Instead, focus on understanding the root cause and developing a solution to address the underlying issues.
- Respect confidentiality—avoid sharing information that was shared in confidence without permission.
- As mentioned earlier, emotions can play a significant role in conflicts. Avoid ignoring feelings or dismissing them as unimportant. Instead, acknowledge and address emotions respectfully and constructively.
- Conflict resolution takes time and patience. Avoid rushing the process. Take the time to understand the issues and work collaboratively to develop a fair and effective solution for everyone involved.
Step 3: Identify the Underlying Causes
Identifying the root causes of a conflict is a critical part of conflict resolution. Here are some strategies that can help you get to the root cause/s of conflict:
Active listening is one of the essential people management skills every leader should develop. It enables you to understand perspectives, reduce misunderstandings, and promote constructive communication. According to the Center for Creative Leadership, there are 6 techniques to help you improve your ability to listen actively:
- Pay attention: Give your full attention to the speaker, and avoid distractions.
- Demonstrate interest: Show interest in the speaker’s message by maintaining eye contact, nodding your head, and providing nonverbal cues.
- Paraphrase: Repeat what the speaker said in your own words to ensure that you understand their message correctly.
- Summarize: Summarize the key points of the speaker’s message to show that you are paying attention and to help clarify any misunderstandings.
- Provide feedback: Provide feedback to the speaker to show that you are engaged in the conversation and to demonstrate that you are actively listening.
- Avoid judgment: Avoid making assumptions or judgments about the speaker’s message, and remain open-minded.
Asking questions is vital in resolving a conflict because it helps uncover the root cause. Open-ended questions can encourage discussion, clarify misunderstandings, and identify the needs and interests of all parties involved. By asking questions, conflicts can be resolved through open communication, active listening, and a willingness to compromise.
Here are some examples of open-ended questions that can be used to identify conflicts in the workplace:
- Can you tell me more about the situation?
- How do you feel about what happened?
- What do you think caused the issue?
- What could be done to resolve the conflict?
- Can you help me understand your perspective?
- What impact is this having on our team/organization?
- How do you see us moving forward from this conflict?
- What are your concerns or needs in this situation?
- What do you think is the other person’s perspective?
- How can we prevent similar conflicts from happening in the future?
Emotions can be a significant contributor to the conflict. For example, a team leader may criticize an employee’s work in front of the rest of the team, causing the employee to feel embarrassed and humiliated. The employee may then become defensive and confrontational toward the team leader, causing a conflict to escalate.
In this scenario, the underlying cause of the conflict is the employee’s emotional response to the team leader’s criticism. By recognizing and acknowledging the emotions involved and understanding the dynamics at play, you will be able to identify the root cause of the conflict. Consequently, you can develop a more practical approach to resolving it, such as addressing the employee’s feelings and rebuilding trust and respect in the team.
Understanding any recurring patterns or behaviors is also an important step to take. Conflicts that happen repeatedly between the same individual or group indicate an issue that needs to be addressed. It might also come from disagreements over resource allocation such as budgets, personnel, or equipment, or from differences in priorities and goals.
Differences in values and beliefs can cause conflict, and understanding them can help identify the underlying cause. When the parties involved understand each other, they begin to accept (and even embrace) these differences.
There are instances when internal conflict (i.e., discrimination or sexual harassment) can lead to litigation. In such cases, seeking the help of a neutral third party, such as a mediator or HR representative, is necessary. These professionals are trained in conflict resolution strategies in the workplace and could help uncover the root cause of a conflict. They could also provide a different perspective to the parties involved and prevent the conflict from escalating.
Step 4: Explore Possible Solutions
Exploring solutions typically involves brainstorming ideas, weighing the pros and cons of each, and determining which one is most feasible. Consider the resources, time, and other factors that may impact the implementation of each solution.
- Brainstorm ideas: Gather a diverse group of stakeholders, including all the parties involved, encourage open communication, and use creative thinking techniques to generate a wide range of potential solutions.
- Weigh the pros and cons: Make a list of the potential outcomes of each solution, identify the benefits and drawbacks of each option, and assign a weight or value to each outcome based on its importance to the parties involved in the conflict. This process can help to clarify the potential impact of each option and facilitate a more informed decision-making process.
One effective method is the “PMI (Plus, Minus, Interesting)” technique, which involves creating three columns on a paper or whiteboard.
- In the plus column, you list the positive aspects of the solution
- In the minus column, you list the negative aspects
- In the interesting column, you list any unique or unexpected outcomes that could result from the solution
This method can help you identify each solution’s potential risks and benefits and make a more informed decision.
- Determine the feasibility of the solution: Evaluate each option based on factors such as available resources, time constraints, and the willingness of the parties involved. The most feasible option is one that is realistic, achievable, and aligned with the goals and values of the organization.
Step 5: Implement the Solution
Once a solution is agreed upon, it is important to implement it. This involves several steps, including setting clear expectations, communicating the solution to all parties involved, and establishing a timeline for implementation.
Setting clear expectations involves making sure that everyone involved understands what is expected of them in terms of implementing the solution. This may include setting specific goals or targets and outlining the steps needed to achieve those goals.
Communication is also crucial, as all parties involved need to be informed of the solution and its expected outcomes. This may include holding meetings or discussions to ensure everyone is on the same page.
Finally, establishing a timeline for implementation can help ensure that the solution is carried out promptly and efficiently. This may involve setting deadlines or milestones to ensure that progress is being made toward the ultimate goal.
Step 6: Follow Up
Following up is an important step in conflict resolution to ensure that the issue has been resolved successfully. It also provides an opportunity to identify any issues that may have arisen and to address them before they become major conflicts.
Some ways to follow up and see if the solution implement was correct include:
- Establishing goalposts: Break down the conflict resolution plan into specific actions and assign a timeframe for each action. Consider the availability of resources, the complexity of the conflict, and the urgency of the situation when determining timelines. Set realistic deadlines and ensure that all parties involved are aware of the timeline and their respective roles in implementing the solution.
- Checking in with the parties involved: Reach out to the individuals involved in the conflict and ask them how things are going. This can help you gauge whether the solution is working or if further adjustments need to be made.
- Monitoring the situation: To ensure the conflict does not resurface, observe the behavior of the individuals involved or solicit feedback from other team members.
- Making adjustments as needed: If issues do arise, be prepared to make adjustments to the solution. This may involve revisiting the underlying causes of the conflict or exploring new solutions to address the situation.
By following up, you can ensure that the conflict has been resolved effectively and that the workplace is a more productive and harmonious environment.
Need more information on how to manage your employees? Check out our in-depth guide to employee management—we discuss what it is, how to do it, and some tools that can help make the process simpler for you.
Workplace conflict resolution is an essential skill for any individual or organization. Effective conflict resolution can improve communication, foster a positive work environment, and increase productivity. By addressing conflicts promptly and respectfully, individuals and organizations can prevent further escalation of the conflict and promote a culture of collaboration and cooperation.