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Managing Conflict in the Workplace

Posted by sean
Published on 05 February 2020


Obviously, for conflict to occur, one party must be perceived to be (or actually) doing something the other party doesn’t like or want for some reason. But often one party creates conflict where the other party has no clue that an issue exists. That can be because of unspoken jealousy, general dislike, discrimination or all manner of latent biases. Whether hidden or overt, conflict is hard to resolve and no manager or supervisor should imagine that resolution is easy to find.

But conflict management in the work-place has to be predicated on the principle that all conflicts cannot necessarily be resolved – or that they can’t be resolved quickly. They may be partially resolved or resolved for a short period of time and sometimes we have to accept that an improved scenario is better than no improvement. People who manage anyone must learn what to do if an issue can’t be resolved satisfactorily or fast. Move an employee? Change some out-of-date rules? Alter some working practices? Change the make-up of a particular team? Discipline or dismiss somebody? Any of these things may decrease the odds of non-productive escalation, even if the issue is not 100% solved. However, naturally, every attempt has to be to try and ensure that resolution is complete and that may take time.

But resolution, complete resolution, is what most managers quite rightly seek. Conflict management involves acquiring skills related to understanding the meaning of conflict, self-awareness, conflict types, conflict communication skills, conflict resolution and establishing a structure for management of conflict in a work environment. Working out what happens after the conflict is resolved is also absolutely paramount. Can the resolution be sustained?

A manager or supervisor must understand the various stages of any conflict in order to handle it. There are many cases worldwide, in all sorts of organisations, where a manager simply does not know enough to manage a conflict situation and it quickly goes wrong or, being already wrong, gets worse. A good rule of thumb is, if in doubt, get advice. A good organisation has to support managers entrusted with sorting out conflict scenarios. The same applies of course to senior management and leaders at director and CEO level.

Normally, a conflict begins from a huge variety of causes: personality, lack of resources, diversity of language or culture, prejudice, lack of sensitivity over a particular issue, communication breakdown, management weaknesses, some wrong that has not been put right, outmoded processes, lack of equipment,  varieties of accusations and so on. The list is long and results in a lack of respect. Again, if the issue can be settled at an early stage, then clearly conflict, full blown conflict, can be avoided. That means that all managers must be attentive and aware (as they should be) and look out for warning signs. That means conflict awareness and solutions’ training, something that is lacking overall.

In recognising conflict, there are some indicators to help you. Look out for body language and facial changes in certain obvious scenarios. Colleagues not speaking to, or ignoring, each other are clear signs that something is wrong somewhere. Staff deliberately undermining or not co-operating with each other, contradicting and bad-mouthing one another – all signs that there’s a problem set or brewing. Long burning disagreements or even shorter outbursts, regardless of issue, are a ready sign of trouble as is management deliberately withholding good or bad news. The problem may be you.

Airing disagreements through the press or social media, open displays of lack of respect towards colleagues and senior people,  lack of candour on budget problems or other sensitive issues, deliberately unclear objectives, no objectives at all, no discussion of or feedback on progress, factions meeting separately and secretly to discuss some issue – all clear signs. One group being left out of organising an event which should include everybody, groups using threatening slogans or symbols to show that their group is right and that others are wrong, threatening texts or nasty emails with unacceptable instructions or content, open bullying with no fear of reprimand – all obvious signs.

There is a proviso here. People are people and no organisation runs without some people not liking some others or some people not agreeing with others or some people being jealous of others. However, most of these everyday occurrences don’t get close to conflict provided that managers keep eyes wide open. Similarly, if there’s a healthy communications’ environment the same applies – conflict can be averted.

Many styles of conflict management behaviour have been researched. Domination is an obvious, but hardly conclusive, option. That’s when the boss is judge and jury – and this rarely works even if it did in previous generations. Neither can a boss step in and play only an incomplete part in resolutions or help to manage a temporary fix.  If a conflict can be given a temporary fix, then it’s important to be aware that it’s only a temporary fix. If the boss gets involved because the situation has escalated to his/her level then s/he must see the situation through to conclusion. Delegation is fine but the responsibility of conclusion must remain at the top.

Compromise is a helpful option of course.  Close to compromise is integration - positive because integration involves openness, information exchange, seeking out alternatives and examining differences in order to solve the problem in a manner acceptable to both parties.

Avoidance and suppression are other forms of handling conflicts. The former is what it says – doing the minimum to make lives easier is temporary at best. The latter can similarly remain safe for only so long. Both are really only holding patterns. However, it has to be remembered as mentioned that some conflict is never going to be fully reconciled, so a half-way measure might be the best to be expected. Avoidance might take the form of some diplomatic sidestepping of the issue, postponing resolution or simply withdrawing from a situation.  A manager may think (or pretend to think) that no conflict exists. That happens and indeed the manager him or herself may be fearful of retribution or threat. The manager’s manager needs to be aware that this might be the case and help out. 

To solve a conflict, some managers may choose to put his/her or a group’s interests last. Why? Well, doing this can satisfy other people’s concerns by giving in, sacrificing, accepting or yielding to another’s viewpoint. This is called conflict accommodation. However, being too accommodating can obviously weaken a party’s position to the point where that party’s voice disappears altogether or is never heard. This may solve the conflict for the other party, but the conflict will probably raise its head again at some point.

Sometimes a person may put his or her interests before anyone else’s. So, for example, a manager might stand up for one party’s rights and uses all available power to win that party’s position come hell or high water. Managers, using this style, a style close to attempted domination, will want to dictate terms and therefore the outcome.  This style can be used only when total managerial leadership is established, but the downside is that other parties may feel resentful and, in truth, it may lead to future conflict possibly of a worse kind. Importantly of course, it could be that the manager is favouring ‘right’ as in a case of racial prejudice or extreme bias - and this is good. On the other hand, if the manager is showing any favouritism, that can lead to disaster.

What of compromise? This must be the best way forward, mustn’t it?  Well, yes and no. Compromise leads to collaboration certainly. But it can lead to dissatisfaction if one side gives away too much and only realises the import of that later. So, compromise must be managed with care. Mutual give-and-take may satisfy both parties - or both will possibly believe that something is better than nothing. The best compromise must result in both sides feeling that they may have had to give way on some factors, yes, but have gained too.

No manager should avoid a conflict, hoping it will go away. It would be better to ask the participants to describe specific actions that they want the other party to take. Normally these ‘asks’ will be unreasonable to start with, but at least they do provide a platform for compromise. Compromise works best if a preferably independent third party is involved.

With the pace of change, communications on a regular basis with meaningful outcomes are absolutely critical and certainly as a way as minimising the possibility of conflict. Good communications include the creation of an open environment which encourages employees to talk freely about work and indeed other issues. Every manager in any organisation of any size needs to be provided with training in interpersonal communication, conflict management and delegation of authority. Conflict resolution processes, never allowed to be too complex, should be made available to everyone and regularly reviewed – with staff input.

Whether you have two employees who are fighting for the desk next to the window or one employee who wants the heat on and another who doesn't, your immediate response to conflict situations that can escalate is essential.  Honesty and, as stated, clear communication plays an important role in the resolution process. Decide whether the issue is big or easily dealt with by a quiet word. Fully acquaint yourself with what's happening, listen (properly listen) to both sides and be open about the problem. Encourage both sides to listen too. Many people don’t and won’t listen in highly charged situations.  Don’t take sides. Let individuals express their feelings. Some feelings of emotion – anger, distress and hurt - usually accompany conflict situations. Before any kind of problem-solving can take place, these emotions should be expressed and acknowledged. But then parked for a while, otherwise nothing positive can possibly occur.

Define the problem. What is it precisely? What do both sides think it is? Are there differences in assumptions? Are facts agreed by both parties? If not, where do they differ and why? What are the negative impacts of the issue on work or relationships? What might be the impact? Are differing personality styles part of the problem? Perhaps it would be useful to meet with employees separately at first and question them about the situation.

The goal of conflict resolution is not necessarily to decide which person is right or wrong; the goal is to reach a solution with which everyone can live. Looking first for needs, rather than solutions, is a powerful tool for generating win/win options. To discover needs, you must try to find out why people want the solutions they initially proposed. Are they valid or is there a secondary, perhaps hidden, agenda? Once you fully understand the advantages that both sides’ solutions have for both sides, you’ve discovered their needs.

Find common areas of agreement, no matter how small - and that means agreeing the problem first, not always easy. Agree on the procedure to follow, agree on worst fears and possibly worst outcome but don’t use that as a threat, agree on some small step changes that would make success a possibility.

Find solutions to satisfy needs. That implies problem-solving by generating multiple alternatives to paint a solution story. Painting a story of what success might look like is really important. In any case, stories can clarify and help participants understand things better.

You may want to schedule a follow-up meeting fairly quickly to determine how the parties are doing. You’ll also need to determine what you'll do if the conflict goes unresolved. If the conflict is causing a disruption in the department, section or team and it remains unresolved, you may need to explore other avenues. An external facilitator may be able to offer other insights on solving the problem. In some cases immediate action might be necessary: personnel removals, performance appraisals, separations, group personnel changes or disciplinary action. But these too must be managed with care otherwise they can exacerbate any situation and make the conflict worse.

It’s important to be timely and not to put off tackling any conflict. Immediacy, no matter how abhorrent the prospect, is key. Lack of urgency sends a clear message that management isn't actually engaged. That sends negative signals to a wider audience. But of course, there’s a balance to be had. Over-reaction can be harmful.

Often, conflict comes from parties or one party lying or embellishing the truth, meaning that you won't have all the information or indeed any, so it can be tempting to fill in the blanks ourselves or accept other people’s stories which may be equally incorrect. It’s essential here that you speak to the conflicted people individually in order to get their perspective and establish the truths. Setting ground rules - including respect, honesty, listening to the other side's story and keeping an open mind - all important and will burgeon if the organisational environment is already fresh and open.

Five things can happen when we judge: people get defensive, give in, shut down, give up or go on the offensive - none of which fully supports getting a resolution. To avoid judgments or exaggeration, ask both parties to look strictly at the information gathered. Ask them to think about the situation as if a hidden camera has captured the event or events that have caused the conflict. What does the camera see or hear? These are the facts.

Viewpoints are important and why those views matter to people are important to understand too. In moments of conflict, managers should help others seek to understand all viewpoints versus finding an immediate resolution in order to end the conflict. It’s often hard to gain 100% consensus. Instead, seek out ideas and opportunities that aim to balance the needs of the majority. This allows everyone to be heard – and that, by far, is a brilliant result in its own right.

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