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Conflict Resolution

Dealing With Workplace Conflict

04 Apr 2022

Workplace conflict resolution is essential to maintain harmony, improve productivity, and implement growth-oriented change! Here’s how to do it!

Conflict of one sort or another is at the foundation of humanity. At its worst it can tear families, communities, organizations, and even nations apart. At its best (that is when it is constructive and managed) it can lead to growth, innovation, and immense productivity.

Conflict is not going to disappear. If anything, the more complex societies become and the more platforms we have to interact with one another, the more frequent it will become. One place where we will experience it the most will be at work.

Regardless of the type of conflict or its causes, it shouldn’t be allowed to fester. The key is to manage conflicts in a timely and thorough manner. That way you will prevent them from spiraling out of control and negatively impacting productivity, damaging performance, and weakening collaboration and cooperation. Some unattended conflicts high enough up the corporate ladder can even be an existential threat to a company.

This blog post will outline some principles that can be used to deal with workplace conflict. It is an invaluable skill that will be appreciated by everyone you engage with. First, however, it is important to understand what is at the root of most workplace conflicts.

Causes of Most Workplace Conflicts

Although each workplace conflict has its unique set of circumstances, there are four overarching causes of workplace conflicts. Being aware of these factors can help leaders devise strategies, guidelines, principles etc. to prevent uncertainty, confusion, or disagreement that can evolve into a conflict.

Poor communication

Our ability to communicate is what has enabled us to build complex and functioning societies the world over. But just as good communication has built everything, poor communication can tear it all down. Examples of bad communication include – lack of good quality and timely information, weak coordination, misinformation, misinterpretation, no feedback. Any one of these factors regardless of the level, time and place of their occurrence is the most likely cause of a workplace conflict.

Personality, value incompatibility

Colleagues don’t have to agree on everything, but the more uniform a structure a company has, the smaller the chance for conflict. This is not to say that this is something companies should strive for! Diverse organizations outperform monolithic ones in practically every metric. But it doesn’t change the fact that an extrovert and an introvert who come from different backgrounds or political affiliations are more likely to clash. It is up to the business to help those employees to resolve their disagreements and channel those views or energy towards innovation and productivity.

Insufficient resources, excessive workloads

When there is a lot to do and not enough material, financial, or personnel resources to handle it conflicts will inevitably arise. Pushing people hard will not just cause conflict between management and employees, but can even create tension and friction between co-workers. With added communication problems and value clashes, this can lead to a toxic workplace conflict that managers would do well to avoid.

Lack of clearly defined roles and responsibilities

If there is no clarity as to what function and responsibility each employee serves, a conflict is not far off. We’ve all seen situations when everyone thought that doing something is not their responsibility and the task is not finished. Likewise, when too many people start doing the same thing, it can create conflicts about the output of each worker. Or reproaches to the management about poor organization and resource management.  

I guarantee that when you break down each workplace conflict, 90% of the time these will be the causes. One could argue that employee-management relationships should also be distinguished as a factor, but usually the problem falls under one of the aforementioned factors. 

Sometimes the problem really is a particular individual who just doesn’t play well with others. If that is the case, a skilled HR specialist will be able to spot the trend and find an appropriate solution to the issue.

Steps to Resolve a Workplace Conflict

1) Find a neutral, safe location for talks

Before trying to resolve a workplace conflict you have to find the right place to do it. Obviously it can’t be done at the office of one of the conflicting parties. In a perfect scenario it would be a place not associated with any of the parties, with a minimalist design, a lot of room, light colors, greenery, and natural lighting. If it’s a room in an office building, book it with an ample time reserve as no one should feel pressured because of limited time.

All these preconditions may sound excessive, maybe even silly, but they play a significant role. Design and environment have an important effect on us. We open up and are more willing to seek a compromise when we feel peaceful and comfortable. Conversely, the less appealing the environment is, the more confrontative we are.

2) Set rules

Whether you are a mediator or one of the conflicting parties, setting ground rules before the talks is important. Without rules and (ideally) someone to enforce them, the best intentions can easily devolve into a shouting match.

These rules can include a structured plan of how a conversation will go, giving both parties equal treatment. If everyone feels that they have the same opportunity to express their views and be listened to, it will lead to a more constructive dialogue. 

Even if the rules are not set, agree on one thing – when one person is talking, the other person can’t interrupt and has to listen in good will. Listening is key!

3) Find the conflict’s source and investigate

As with everything – finding a solution requires an in-depth understanding of the problem. This means getting to know all the details about what caused the conflict and how it is viewed by both parties. The opposing viewpoints should not just be in the hands of the mediator, but should be available to both parties. This will create a single understanding of the conflict as well as create conditions for empathy towards the other side’s viewpoint.

Establishing the cause of a conflict in as detailed a manner as possible will help the two conflicting parties avoid walking in the same conflict situation again. Likewise, management can use this experience to improve business or management practices to avoid a similar situation in the future. You would be surprised how often the system/structure/process is flawed, not the individuals involved in it.

The more complex a problem is, the more effort and investigative work it will take to solve. Have one-on-one talks if there are facts that parties don’t feel comfortable sharing. Invite any third parties that might have some valuable insights about the conflict or the conditions surrounding it. All this will help to get to the crux of the matter.

4) Agree on the path ahead

With the background information (causes, perspectives etc.) clear, both parties should sit down to lay out the path to reach the common goal of resolving the conflict. 

Ideally, both sides would not just agree to make peace, but find an additional objective that they could pursue together. Improving the work environment, organizational practices, or underlying processes of an organization to prevent or minimize similar conflicts in future is a good idea. This will not be applicable to every situation (both due to the nature of conflict and its severity). But it can be a useful tool for both the individuals involved and the organization as a whole.

Doing all of this will involve talking, listening, and plenty of brainstorming. Fortunately, at this stage of the conflict resolution process progress should come easier. With any luck some level of empathy and trust has already developed within each party. 

5) Achieving and maintaining harmony

This step will differ depending on the type of conflict, its severity, and scope. Two things remain the same. First, the conflicting parties should work together to reach the agreed result. As already outlined, this could include anything from simply settling the conflict to rebuilding trust and cooperation between the two sides or even undertaking a joint project.

Second, having gone through the process of resolving a conflict, both the involved parties as well as the mediator (if there was one) should learn from the experience and stay vigilant to prevent conflicts like these from resurfacing both between the two parties and the organization as a whole. 

The one thing to take away from this blog post, it is that a conflict always offers an opportunity. If both conflicting parties or their superiors shirk the responsibility to solve the conflict, they miss an opportunity to learn, grow, and innovate. If they rise to the challenge and work to solve the problem, everyone will benefit both in the short and long term.

Author: Lote Steina

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