Small Business Tips

The beginner’s guide to conflict resolution in the workplace

MileIQ Team

Perhaps it’s Pat eating Gemma’s sandwiches (again). An argument about whether the heating should be on or off. Or maybe it’s something more serious. Like someone feeling they’ve been short-changed or discriminated against.

Whatever the reasons, conflict in the workplace is bound to happen at some point. And, as the boss, it’s up to you to make sure there’s a satisfactory resolution.

Here’s an introduction to conflict management and resolution techniques in the workplace.

What is conflict management?

Conflict management means handling disagreements in a constructive way. It aims to:

  • Find a fair solution that respects everyone’s needs
  • Help those who’ve had the disagreement learn from the experience
  • Improve relationships and the atmosphere in the workplace
  • Avoid future disagreements about the same issue

How do you recognize conflict in the workplace?

Sometimes it’s obvious that there’s a conflict. Staff members may be cool towards one another. Or you might even witness a heated exchange yourself.

But other times, the signs of conflict may be more subtle. And in these cases, it’s your job to recognize that there’s an issue and take steps to resolve it.

Telltale signs of workplace conflict include:

  • Lack of engagement. There may be less participation during team meetings. Or fewer people might volunteer to take on new tasks
  • Behavioral changes. Are employees avoiding social gatherings? Or maybe they make snide remarks or just generally have a less positive attitude?
  • A drop in productivity. If people are in constant disagreement, they’ll be less likely to get work done
  • More sick days. Continuous conflict raises stress levels. And stress is one of the most common reasons employees take sick days
  • Negative comments on questionnaires or during performance reviews

Addressing conflict in the workplace: Developing your conflict resolution skills

Want to manage conflict in the workplace effectively? You’ll need good conflict resolution skills. In particular, you should work on the following:

  • Active listening
  • Active listening means giving people your full attention. In other words, not just hearing, but using all your five senses.
  • To practice active listening:
  • Make eye contact about 60 to 70 percent of the time. This helps create an emotional connection with the speaker
  • Observe the speaker’s body language. Tone of voice, posture and other non-verbal cues can tell you a lot more than words alone
  • Ask open-ended questions to encourage the speaker to say more
  • Don’t interrupt. And, more importantly, don’t prepare your reply in your head while the person is still speaking
  • Empathy
  • Expert facilitator Craig Freshley argues misunderstandings are the root cause of most conflicts. Which means that understanding each party’s feelings, needs and motivations is key. You can do this effectively only if you can put yourself in their shoes.
  • International entrepreneurship organization Ashoka puts it this way:
  • Empathy is more than just awareness and concern … It’s about the ability to communicate effectively and understand the motivations of others. Empathy is about standing up, not standing by, uncovering what’s below the surface through active listening and putting words into action.
  • Patience
  • Conflicts in the workplace are rarely as straightforward as they seem. For one, no one likes admitting they’re wrong. But, more importantly, the tension leading to the conflict could’ve built up over months or years. So, an argument about a misplaced mug may actually be about something much deeper. For instance, someone may be angry about having been overlooked for a promotion.
  • With this in mind, you should take things one step at a time. Make sure everyone gets to tell their side of the story. And avoid rushing to judgement, even if you think there’s an obvious solution.
  • Problem-solving
  • At the risk of stating the obvious, to resolve conflicts you need solutions. Which means you have to look at situations critically and find a fair compromise.
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  • Sound hard? That’s because it is.
  • Luckily, there are ways to help your problem-solving skills along:
  • Use mind maps. A mind map can give you more clarity by helping you lay out all the aspects of your problem visually
  • Look at the problem as a hypothetical. According to Construal Level Theory, putting some distance between yourself and the problem encourages creative solutions
  • Train your brain. Sudoku, crosswords, chess and other logic and strategy-based games and puzzles can boost your problem-solving abilities

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How to manage conflict in the workplace

Every workplace conflict is different. That said, you should have a workplace conflict resolution mechanism in place.

This is important for two reasons. Firstly, it makes it easier to address issues before they escalate. And, secondly, it ensures you address every conflict fairly and impartially.

Here are four steps you can take to manage conflict in the workplace more effectively.

1. Carry out a risk assessment

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. So it’s worth seeing if there’s anything you could do to prevent or lower the chances of conflicts.

In particular:

  • Consider whether your work environment could be causing conflict. For example, is the office layout too cramped?
  • Look at job descriptions and workflow. Are there any bottlenecks? Or duties that force people to step on each other’s toes? Some minor tweaks might solve the problem.
  • Provide everyone with the right training. For example, you could send staff to equality and diversity training. Or training on how to handle confrontational behavior.
  • Create a written conflict resolution policy. This tells your staff exactly what’s expected of them. Plus, it encourages people to speak up as soon as possible, so situations don’t escalate.

2. Have an informal discussion

Many times, listening to people and allowing them to express their grievances is enough to clear the air.

That said, for this to be effective, you’ll have to make an effort to be as approachable as possible. Encourage employees to drop by your office if they need to. And make it clear that you take everyone’s feelings and concerns seriously.

You’ll also have to stay calm and in control. As humans, we tend to take disagreements personally. But it’s your job to keep the focus on the issue. Avoid letting the conflict become about the persons involved.

3. Involve a mediator

A mediator’s job is to help the parties in a dispute reach an agreement they’re both happy with. The mediator doesn’t decide the outcome. They help the parties focus on the issues that are causing the problem so they can arrive at a solution.

Mediation is voluntary and confidential. This means you can’t use it in disputes that have to be formally investigated, such as discrimination or sexual harassment.

You could choose to act as a mediator yourself. But if you’d rather involve an impartial third party, you can find a mediator here and here.

4. Use arbitration

In arbitration, an impartial third-party listens to both sides. They then weigh up the issues and make a binding decision.

Arbitration is more formal than mediation. Although it’s still voluntary. Both sides have to agree to it for the decision to be binding.

In summary

Life at the office is rarely smooth sailing. But if you have a good conflict resolution mechanism in place and practice active listening, patience and empathy, chances are you can turn things around before they go off the rails.

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