Conflicts occur in every workplace. Whether it’s a disagreement about the best way to solve a problem or a clash of two different personalities, it’s only a matter of time until a conflict arises in your organization.
What Is Conflict Resolution?
Conflict resolution is the process of finding a peaceful solution to a dispute between two or more parties.
In this article, we’ll cover in more detail what conflict resolution is, why it’s important and how you can resolve conflict in the workplace.
What Is Conflict Resolution?
Conflict resolution is the process of settling a dispute between two or more parties. Most commonly, this will be based on the principles of facilitative mediation, in which a mediator allows each party to share their side of the story, lead a discussion around the common points of contention and task participants with suggesting an agreeable resolution.
There is no silver bullet to conflict resolution, because every situation is different and involves different types of people with different experiences, perspectives and communication styles. But with the right communication tools, you can try to understand where each person is coming from and get both parties back on track and pulling in the same direction.
How to Resolve Conflict in the Workplace
There are several different paths you can take to resolving conflicts. If you are leading the discussion, here are a few steps you can take:
1. Address Conflicts Early
It’s best to resolve a conflict as soon as possible. When conflict lingers over time, it can become more difficult to address.
“What’s needed is a discussion from the start,” Leslie Nydick, CEO of The Conflict Strategist, told Built In. “It has to be multi-directional; It can’t be one-way communication.”
When people stop talking about something, that can lead them to make assumptions, which then leads to confusion, and ultimately, conflict, said Courtney Chicvak, a conflict resolution specialist and lecturer at Columbia University.
“People often don’t express their concerns or they let things simmer for much longer than they actually should, and eventually there’s a blow-up,” Chicvak told Built In. “It makes it much harder to show up and resolve an issue if there’s a blow-up.”
2. Choose a Facilitator
Employees might not want to express their opinions to their direct manager because they may see them as part of the problem. They might also hesitate to share their feelings with HR because they are afraid of getting fired or having negative information added to their file.
Some companies have established ombuds offices, which can informally discuss workplace issues and conflicts outside of HR channels. Companies might also bring in someone from outside the organization, like a mediator trained in facilitating dialogue in workplace conflicts.
3. Find a Private Place to Talk
Managers or mediators should find a private environment that encourages people to be vulnerable and share their feelings. If the two parties are particularly heated, the facilitator may have to deescalate the situation by separating them in different rooms.
4. Set Expectations and Ground Rules
If the two parties are going to be in the same room, the facilitator should set some clear ground rules, such as not interrupting when the other person is talking. The facilitator might also ask participants to limit the scope of the discussion to the conflict at hand and not bring up past conflicts or grievances. Both parties should be treated with dignity and respect, and the conversation should not turn into a debate about who is right and wrong.
5. Actively Listen to Both Sides
Both parties should have an opportunity to share their side of the story without interruption, and both parties should try to understand where the other party is coming from.
The facilitator and participants should both “dial up their curiosity,” Nydick said, and realize that they may not have all the answers. You never know what you may learn from listening to other sides of the story.
“Focus on what the person is saying without planning how you’re going to respond,” Nydick added. “Don’t take up space in your mind thinking about how you experienced something similar. If you’re thinking about what you want to say next, you’re not listening.”
6. Clarify the Source of the Conflict
Many conflicts are like icebergs, according to Jennifer Libby, district manager at Insperity. Most of it is under the surface. That unaddressed tension could be personal, or it could be indicative of a much larger issue that needs to be addressed.
Sometimes the source of the conflict may not always be apparent, or it may be obscured by another reason. By carefully listening to all sides, you should aim to identify a conflict that can be discussed and ultimately resolved with a potential solution.
7. Ask Open-Ended Questions
When discussing the conflict, the facilitator should ask neutral, open-ended questions. They should not ask leading questions designed to confirm their suspicions, as these typically put people on the defensive and cause them to shut down.
Instead of asking questions that start with “why,” Nydick suggests starting questions with “how” or “what.” “Why would you do it that way?” is much more likely to put people on the defensive than “How did you decide to do that?” or “Help me understand your approach to that situation.”
Nydick also suggests people pause before responding, which will allow time to reflect on what someone has said and allow time to craft a more intentional question. She also suggests asking one question at a time to prevent issues from getting unnecessarily complicated.
For participants, Chicvak suggests using “I” statements as opposed to “you” statements. Instead of saying “you hurt my feelings,” you could say “I feel disrespected when you do that.”
8. Agree on a Solution
When working toward a conflict, a manager or HR person may try to bring the two sides together by acknowledging their shared goal. You can acknowledge that each employee has the right to their own opinions, but make it clear that the company has shared expectations and values around treating each other with respect.
“The reason the values are so important is because it’s shared language,” Libby told Built In. “Before we were in conflict, we could agree on these things. That means we can agree on something again. You’ve planted some foreshadowing in their mind about that outcome.”
Under a facilitative mediation approach, both employees are asked to come up with a resolution that they can both agree on. The thinking here is that the two parties know the intricacies of the situation better than anyone else and are thus best-equipped to come up with a solution. By coming up with their own solution, the two parties are also more likely to feel a sense of buy-in and work toward a successful outcome.
“When something’s imposed upon you, you’re much less likely to actually do it,” Chicvak said. “Whereas if you came up with this idea, you have some investment in it, and you’re more likely to actually follow through.”
Once a solution has been reached, both parties should walk out of the meeting certain of what actions are required on their part and what could happen if a similar conflict occurs again.
9. Follow Up
You’ll want to monitor the relationship between the employees and check in with each of the two parties to gauge whether the agreed-upon plan of action has been effective in resolving the conflict. If it hasn’t been effective, you may want to meet with the two parties again to develop another solution.
As a manager or HR leader, you can also use this experience as a learning opportunity to understand which circumstances are likely to create conflict in the future. By learning about the root causes of conflict and honing your conflict resolution skills, you can create space for disagreement and transform conflict into a force for improvement and innovation.
Why Is Conflict Resolution Important?
Most people try to avoid conflict because it is uncomfortable. But Nydick argues that conflict is the result of different ideas, and that talking through those differences offers an opportunity to find a better way of working — and potentially a new business strategy.
Conflict resolution is also key for building a healthy company culture. A 2017 survey of 1,344 full-time employees found that 53 percent of employees ignore “toxic” situations. By taking swift action to resolve a conflict, managers can prevent an isolated conflict from spreading across the team, creating a toxic culture of division and resentment.
Failing to properly manage conflict at work can result in additional consequences:
- Poor productivity. Employees spend more than four hours per week dealing with conflict at work, according to a Myers-Briggs study. That time could be better spent elsewhere.
- Low job satisfaction. Employees who spent more time dealing with conflict had lower job satisfaction, according to the Myers-Briggs study. And people who viewed themselves as good at managing conflict had higher levels of job satisfaction.
- High turnover. If employees are feeling stressed or resentful about unresolved conflict, they will likely leave at the first chance they get to find happier coworkers and a healthier company culture.
Types of Conflict in the Workplace
Workplace conflicts are generally either substantive conflicts or personality conflicts.
1. Substantive conflicts are rooted in the work of an organization. For example:
- Two workers from different departments clash due to conflicting priorities.
- Teammates disagree on the best strategy for a project.
2. Personality conflicts are disagreements driven by emotions. For example:
- An employee complains that their ideas aren’t being heard because their coworker dominates every discussion.
- An employee with an expressive communication style assumes their coworker does not like them because their messages are terse.
According to Libby, substantive conflicts are “usually not malicious,” but often rooted in a passion for the mission of the organization or the craft of their profession: “People have strong feelings about things, and they care how things are done.” If a conflict is simply interpersonal, Libby often suggests looking inward to see how one can improve the situation.
Conflict mediators will want to keep the type of conflict in mind, as it can help determine the appropriate course of action. For instance, the solution of a personality conflict may simply involve one person changing their behavior, while a substantive conflict may require multiple parties to meet and discuss a viable path toward collaboration.
Examples of Conflict in the Workplace
Workplace conflicts can show up in many different ways, such as:
- Team members are given shared responsibilities and it’s unclear who is responsible for certain tasks.
- Workers disagree with senior leadership’s strategy for the company and begin to complain about it to their managers.
- An employee argues with a coworker because they have different feelings about current events.
- A dispute arises between two company leaders over the allocation of resources for their respective departments.
- An employee feels frustrated when they don’t understand their manager’s directions and are blamed for not meeting expectations.
- An employee believes they were unfairly passed over for a promotion by their manager.
- An organizational restructuring leaves some workers feeling confused and frustrated about their roles.
- Some employees feel that their coworkers take an unfair amount of time off.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is conflict resolution?
Conflict resolution is the process of finding a solution to a dispute. In a workplace conflict, HR leaders, ombuds or third-party mediators will typically resolve a conflict by facilitating a dialogue between the two parties and finding a solution both parties can agree on.
What are the 5 conflict resolution strategies?
Researchers Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann identified five strategies that people use to resolve conflicts: avoiding, competing, accommodating, collaborating and compromising. By identifying your conflict resolution strategy, you can learn how to become more assertive or cooperative to adapt to different personalities and situations.