Unfortunately, conflict is an unavoidable aspect of all human social interaction. The longer a group of people are around each other, the higher the chances of a conflict flaring up, too, which is why workplaces, along with homes, are one of the most common conflict-prone zones in a person's life.
The good news is that while conflict at a place of work cannot be avoided, it can be dealt with effectively by the person in charge. If you own and manage a business organisation, this is you, and it is imperative that you ensure any conflict is promptly settled.
To provide some guidance and assistance, this is how to manage conflict.
Accept that Conflict Will Happen
If you aspire to be a leader in your life, you need first to embrace the fact that dealing with conflicts is a common aspect of management. Shying away from them or letting them linger is not effective leadership, whether you thrive in such an environment or not.
Employees locked in a conflict situation might avoid confrontation, and try to sweep it under the carpet. However, if you adopt the same avoidance strategy as a manager, this will only make matters worse. Proactive engagement is essential when dealing with employee conflict; at some point, you will have to take things into your own hands, and that requires a frame of mind that is not averse to conflict.
Understand the Root Causes of Conflict
Trying to solve a fight between people without understanding its trigger is like treating a disease without a proper diagnosis. With this in mind, most conflicts between two people - including those outside the workplace - can often be attributed to one or a combination of the following factors:
- Poor Communication: Without proper and effective communication, individuals are left with an information deficit. When actions are taken based on incomplete or miscommunicated information, those actions can rile up other individuals in the workplace.
- Emotion: Human beings are driven by their emotions just as much as by intelligence and the basic survival instinct. Often, we let our emotions take over, which can put us directly on a collision course with others.
With the right kind of office policies and structures, you can mitigate the chances of workplace conflict due to miscommunication and emotional behaviour, but neither can be removed entirely from the equation.
Identify Conflicts that Require your Intervention
This might sound contrary to everything said so far, but not all conflicts at the office require your direct attention and intervention. People can and will have minor arguments and fights in their day to day lives, and if you intrude into everything, you risk coming across as an overbearing leader.
The trick here is to analyse the potential severity of a conflict. It helps to create a set of acceptable behaviours for your employees to follow at the workplace in their interactions and, if a conflict looks like it will breach these behaviours, you will need to step in. For instance, any physical fight would naturally require your immediate attention, while arguments involving the use of derogatory or discriminatory language would be another.
In other, less intensive arguments, it might be better to gauge the issue from a distance. Try to give it a few days. If the negativity continues to fester even after that time, it might be worth your attention.
Dealing with Employee Conflict
In management theory, there are several established approaches to conflict resolution. One of the earliest and most popular ones was proposed by Thomas and Kilmann way back in the 1970s, with their Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI) proving a handy and versatile management toolkit for leaders.
Thomas & Kilmann, 1974
When the conflict is between equals, a compromising approach might be the most ideal: as a leader, you mediate and persuade both parties to give up something to solve the fight. This is the preferred option when you have some time on hand to iron out the details and can often result in a lasting resolution for workplace conflicts.
Sometimes, though, you need to make quick and unpopular decisions in business. When you don't have time for lengthy negotiations, a competing approach might be necessary. Here, you will accept the position of the party with the most forceful argument. Of course, this approach can have negative consequences for employee morale, as one party can end up feeling left out.
In certain situations involving trivial issues, a more accommodating approach might be beneficial. You could try to make one side give in to solve the conflict, which is the best option if the dispute is more important to one side than the other, for example. However, this method should not be used when the conflict is about very sensitive or personal issues.
Workplace conflicts that involve more than two individuals require a more collaborative approach. As a leader, you have to bring together all concerned parties and try to thrash out an acceptable solution. Use this approach when you have time on your hands, or if the matter at stake is important enough to affect the productivity of your business.
Focus on Being Decisive, Not Impulsive
It is essential to take some time to analyse the conflict, too. To pick one of the approaches mentioned above, you need to have a good understanding of the situation, and for that, you need to tackle the conflict head-on by approaching all the involved parties.
Communication is critical here. Talk to each party in person, and listen to what they have to say. It is vital to understand the perspective of both factions. Always remember: your job as the leader is to neutralise the situation while helping people gain something positive (best case scenario) or while causing the least amount of harm (worst case).
Once you have a good grasp of the situation, come to a decision and communicate it clearly and decisively to both sides. Avoid impulsive decisions as much as possible and always ensure that you come across as a fair arbiter in your workplace.
Of course, it is impossible to please everybody in a conflict situation, and even the best resolution might result in some lingering resentment. However, taking rash and impulsive decisions will only serve to alienate you from your employees and make things a lot worse - something you want to avoid just as much as an ugly, long-drawn-out conflict.
How do you manage and resolve conflict in the workplace? Let us know in the comments below.