Conflict between individuals or teams that spirals out of control can cause friction that derails projects and torpedoes relationships. In a complicated workplace where big personalities push their own agendas, conflict resolution skills are key to finding a way forward and soothing battered egos.
Employers are looking for people who can say: “Do you know what? Let’s fix this.”
When passions run high, conflicts are inevitable. If they are allowed to fester, staff turnover will increase, productivity will drop, and morale will suffer. Breakthrough ideas are often born from conflict, but only if the negative aspects of the conflict are sidelined to concentrate on nurturing the positives.
In this blog, we consider the skills involved in conflict resolution, as well as some examples:
- What exactly is conflict resolution?
- Are there different types of conflict in the workplace?
- Six-step process to resolve a conflict – with examples.
- The conflict resolution skills of an effective mediator.
What is conflict resolution?
Conflict is common when two people or teams have differing ideas, approaches, objectives, or beliefs. Conflict resolution entails finding a common ground and moving towards a solution that will work for both parties.
Conflict mediation could come from within the team or from an external observer. In both cases, impartial objectivity is key to seeing both sides of the issue. It is important that the person resolving the conflict does not get drawn into it - that can complicate the issue.
The best leaders seek to use conflict as fuel to bring teams closer together, build consensus around thorny problems and help people to realize that they are “in it together.”
If a team was peaceful all the time, everyone would work away quietly in their own little silos and there would be no exchange of ideas. Conflict is healthy, but only if it is resolved in the right way by the right person.
Types of conflict in the workplace
There are three common types of conflict in the workplace. Each has its own nuances:
Conflicts between two employees of equal status are usually resolved by a more senior member of staff. This seniority often gives the mediator enough authority and gravitas to push through the resolution. Having said this, the best top-down conflict resolution approach is creative and sensitive rather than authoritative and domineering.
Example: Simon complains that Sarah is always late providing the figures for his monthly reports. Sarah says that his deadlines are unreasonable and do not give her enough time to collate what is required. Both are stubborn and unwilling to find a compromise.
Conflicts with manager
Conflicts between a manager and an employee are a whole different proposition. Managers should be able to smooth out most disagreements. However, every now and again, issues come along that can only be resolved with objective external mediation. It is important not to undermine the manager’s authority, whilst at the same time realizing that they can err.
Example: Layla feels that her boss Rachel is not listening to her and always dismisses her ideas. Rachel thinks that Layla should concentrate on getting the basics of her job right before she can get involved in strategic matters. Their workplace expectations differ.
Disagreements with clients or service providers will not only disrupt working relationships but may also have a serious impact on the bottom line. Many clients cannot be easily replaced, so investing time in conflict resolution is critical (while ideally trying to avoid conflicts in the first place). Take care that client relations are not abusive or discriminatory.
Example: The client has had a change of management and wants to renegotiate the payment terms on the contract. Negative cash flow is impacting their service provision. The company manager is refusing to amend the contract until it runs out in two years’ time.
How to resolve a conflict
The first thing to consider before you enter the conflict zone is that you should strive to maintain a suitable emotional distance. If you get embroiled in the heat of the moment you will become part of the conflict rather than remaining an impartial mediator.
Here are six basic steps to resolving a conflict:
Acknowledge the issue
The first step is to listen actively to both parties in order to understand their varying perspectives. Recognize the importance of the issue for both and come to a mutual agreement that it needs to be solved.
Listening skills: Intuition, encouragement, attentiveness, persuasion, active listening, respect, sincerity, articulation, calmness
Coaxing each party to explore the problem from the other person’s perspective is a great place to start. What is triggering them to adopt such an opinion? How has the conflict arisen? Is there anything that I can do to move toward their position?
Empathy skills: Compassion, enabling trust, patience, inclusion, balance, flexible thinking, emotional intelligence, being present
Act as a mediator
Acting as an impartial judge and jury is not a simple matter. A great mediator in a conflict enables both parties to come to a mutual understanding and helps them to work out a way forward. Provide time and space for an objective resolution. Be an observant cheerleader.
Mediation skills: Positivity, professionalism, rational approach, impartiality, measured, transparency, humility, diplomacy, perception
Understanding the conflict is one thing. Moving forward to find a solution requires an extra push. It will involve both parties making compromises, so insist on positive action from the very beginning of the conflict resolution process. It is about the journey, not the destination.
Assertiveness skills: Determination, visionary thinking, delegating, prioritizing, honesty, negotiation, fairness, leadership, influencing, data-driven
Solve problems and create a plan
When the need for action has been agreed upon, the time has come for solving problems and finding a way forward. Identify changes in behavior and attitudes that can improve relationships and remove the operational or commercial roadblocks.
Problem-solving skills: Creativity, critical thought, collaboration, problem resolution, brainstorming, strategic thinking, negotiation, decision making, organization
Follow up and ensure accountability
Conflicts can easily reignite when the focus on them has diminished. The two parties will find another reason and things will kick off again. Monitor progress, keep an eye on relationships, and consider more serious action if conflicts escalate.
Accountability skills: Drive, focus, feedback, motivation, versatility, leadership, following-through, impartiality, planning, logic
Every great company is running so fast that everything is on the brink of falling apart. Experienced managers know when to nudge the brakes and when to bring their people back together after a passionate disagreement.
Conflict resolution is at the heart of this consolidation effort. People learn a lot about each other when there are disagreements, but they should not be allowed to take things too far.
To recap, here are the basics of effective conflict resolution:
- First seek to understand the conflict and the personalities involved.
- Listening and empathy skills will show that you are on top of the issues.
- Mediate between the parties and encourage positive action.
- Create a plan that is acceptable to all and ensure that it is carried out.
- Aim to repair relationships and follow up to check compliance.