15 Tips on How to Manage Conflict at Work
This article discusses tips on how to manage conflict at work. From our own experience in life and in the workplace we know that conflict is inevitable.
Workplace conflict encompasses disputes, friction or disagreement between one or more people in an organization.
A knee-jerk reaction when it comes to conflict is to avoid it as much as possible and conversely when conflict occurs, there can be a temptation to hope that it goes away on its own.
Ignoring conflict might not be the best solution, there is need to deal with, resolve or handle conflict when it occurs.
You can quickly skim all the 15 conflict resolution tips on the table of contents below and then click on any tip to read further details. Please enjoy reading. Thank you.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
- Causes of conflict in an organization
- Causes of conflict between individuals
- Causes of team or group conflict
- Signs of conflict between individuals/Conflict warning signs
- Negative ways of dealing with conflict/Mistakes in handling conflict
- Ways to handle conflict in the workplace
- Ascertaining the impact of the conflict
- Finding out what solutions have been tried
- Seeking solutions from conflicting parties
- Agreeing on a mutual solution
- Following up and monitoring effectiveness of the solution
- Anticipating future problems
- When solutions don’t work/When conflict is not resolved
- Benefits of conflicts
- Conflict resolution skills
Generally, people want to do a good job at work, be productive, creative, ambitious, cooperative and thrive in the work environment while maintaining strong and healthy working relationships.
Despite these noble intentions, at one point or another, we are bound to face some conflict at the workplace.
Causes of conflict at an organizational level include the following:
- Poor leadership – where an organization is not being led well leading to mismanagement of resources, poor company performance, low staff morale, turnover and being uncompetitive.
- Lack of communication – can lead to a vacuum of information where people do not know what is going on or what they are expected to do; closely related is unclear communication.
- Compensation – feeling that salary and/or benefits are not commensurate with the work.
- Lack of resources – or inadequate resources to effectively do one’s work such as inadequate staffing, inadequate supplies, limited budgets and lack of training budgets or training resources.
- Systems breakdown – where systems are not well maintained or regularly maintained leading to outages, disruption of work, delays, missed deadlines, pressure to perform within tight schedules, overworking to catch up, missed orders, loss of customers etc.
- Resistance to change – tension can arise when change is viewed as a threat, when the reason for change is not understood or properly communicated, or when the originator of the change is not trusted.
- Negative work environment or even hostile work environment – where overall company culture is toxic with elements such as intimidation, bullying, fear, undermining others, cliques, unfair treatment, bad attitudes towards work and others, difficult or entitled employees etc.
- Unresolved problems – when problems persist for long periods and similarly when employees’ suggestions or solutions are constantly ignored.
- Lack of cooperation – this could be between individuals, teams, managers, departments, offices, headquarters and branches, partners, vendors, suppliers, clients, customers etc.
Conflicts can vary from minor misunderstandings to explosive disagreements.
Individual conflicts could arise out of differences of opinions, values, beliefs or perspectives between two or more people such as an employer and an employee, disagreements between coworkers or disputes between an employee and their supervisor, between team members, staff from different departments and even conflicts between managers.
Other causes of conflict between individuals include:
- Work processes and different opinions on how to do things.
- Under-performing employee.
- Lack of recognition.
- Personality differences.
- Hidden agendas.
- Power struggles.
- A poor fit.
- Lack of autonomy – constantly being told what to do.
- Ignoring concerns/being dismissive.
- Blame game,
- Lack of flexibility.
- Competing priorities or goals.
- Work styles
- Poor communication.
- Lack of focus.
- External individual problems.
- Selfishness, putting yourself first and unwillingness to help others.
- Lack of planning or poor planning.
- Poor listening skills.
- Interrupting others.
- Lack of feedback especially between a supervisor and direct report.
- Condescending attitude.
- Unhealthy competition.
In as much as teams are supposed to work harmoniously towards the accomplishment of common goals, conflict can arise due to various factors such as:
- Competing priorities – where the priorities of the team are at odds with an individual’s goals or priorities and one feels pulled in different directions.
- Unbalanced workloads – where an individual or a specific section of the group feels like they are doing far much more than others.
- Scarce resources – when there are inadequate resources to help in achieving desired results.
- Unclear communication – where it is not well defined what each person should be doing or what the whole group should work on together.
- Power struggles – where individuals jostle for power and leadership or decision making authority.
- Unrealistic deadlines – tight deadlines can be a source of worry, stress and unhappiness at work.
- Not sharing credit – despite putting in the work then not receiving recognition or appreciation.
- Lack of team guidelines – a well-functioning team should be governed by rules and expectations as well as clarity in goals and leadership. Lack of clear guidelines and structure can breed conflict and confusion.
- Interdependent work relationship – where you are waiting for someone to complete a task in order to complete your work.
When left unresolved, workplace conflicts can lead to stress, frustration, disappointment, anger, communication breakdown, unhappiness at work, hostility, absenteeism and even staff turnover.
It can be tempting to ignore conflict and hope that it will go away, however, unresolved conflict can escalate leading to heated arguments, pointing fingers, blaming each other and even affect others who are not involved in the conflict.
Other signs of conflict between individuals entail:
- Lack of cooperation or collaboration.
- Not apologizing.
- Harsh emails.
- Lack of interest.
- Low motivation.
- Avoiding each other.
- Low morale.
- Reduced productivity.
- Hurtful words.
- Office drama.
- Walking away.
- Wanting to win an argument.
- Lack of respect.
- Shutting down.
More often than not we are likely to feel that the other party is to blame and they should see things from our perspective.
Usually, each person has a role in a disagreement, argument or dispute.
Mistakes in handling conflict include the following:
- Ignoring or avoiding the conflict and perhaps hoping that it will go away on its own.
- Avoiding the other person.
- Hostile body language.
- Blaming each other.
- Making excuses and not acknowledging our role in the conflict.
- Arguing/shouting match/outbursts.
- Keeping grudges.
- Hoarding information.
- Being defensive.
- Not compromising.
- Wanting to win at all costs.
- Needing to be right all the time.
- Bad mouthing others.
- Losing your temper; yelling, exploding or blowing up at someone.
- Engaging in feuds where a dispute goes on for a long time.
- Not contributing in conflict resolution.
- Forcing or pushing your point of view through.
- Ignoring the input or feelings of the other party.
- Intimidating others.
- Being arrogant/having an inflated-ego.
Steps in workplace conflict resolution can vary depending on the severity of the conflict; the more severe the conflict, the more steps and intervention would be required.
Steps on how to resolve conflicts at work as a mediator include the following:
- Find a time and a place to listen to the conflicting parties.
- Listen to both sides of the conflict.
- Figure out the problem or source of the conflict.
- Ask questions to discover, draw out or find out more information to get to the bottom of the issue or unmask the real issue or hidden problem that is causing friction.
- Identify what led to the conflict – Are there specific actions or behaviors that caused the conflict? What led to the conflict?
- Determine why the contentious behavior happens; When did the behavior start or happen?
- Request the conflicting parties to repeat-back what the other party stated is the cause of the conflict and how it affects them (i.e. restating the problem based on the other persons’ point of view).
- Paraphrase your own understanding of the conflict.
Conflict that has gone on for a long time takes a toll on energy and emotions. It can even dampen morale and productivity.
Inquire how long the conflict has been going on and similarly find out how the dispute is affecting the employees and others.
The end goal is to aim to emerge stronger from each conflict rather than it eating up or sucking away people’s energy and enthusiasm.
An additional step in mediating a conflict in the office is as follows:
- Ask the conflicting parties if they have tried to resolve the conflict on their own.
- If they indeed tried to work things out, inquire what solution they attempted.
- Seek any insights on why the solution might not have worked.
A manager or supervisor does not necessarily have to be involved in mediating all conflicts in the office or workplace.
It is helpful to encourage and train employees to actively deal with conflicts on their own.
In other situations, employees might be unable to resolve the conflict on their own or there could be too many emotions or hurt egos involved that it would necessitate a third party to arbitrate.
An important step in conflict resolution is to ask what solutions the conflicting parties propose.
After each person has described what an ideal solution would look like, the next step is to identify the pros and cons of each solution.
Identify common ground or areas of agreement and work together on a solution.
Crafting a workable solution requires humility, willingness to concede, reciprocation, forgiveness, compromise, mutual respect and a genuine willingness to collaborate or work together to make the solution work.
Re-state what has been agreed and how the solution will be carried out.
Encourage each party to repeat-back their understanding of the agreed-upon solution.
Follow-up at some point to see how things are going. Likewise observe if employees are getting along.
Inquire if the problem has been fixed; similarly listen to how they went about sorting out the conflict. You could also learn something in the process.
Thank the employees for their efforts in resolving the conflict as well as the positive progress being undertaken.
It is possible that someone else in the organization could be facing the same challenges that have been resolved or overcome.
In such a situation, employees can transfer their knowledge in helping others to solve similar problems by sharing their story or solutions that worked for them.
Whereas future problems cannot be eliminated entirely, you can take steps to anticipate and reduce the severity or impact of potential disputes, disagreements or quarrels.
Some proactive methods of anticipating and lessening future problems include the following:
- Setting clear goals and guidelines including performance goals.
- Encouraging healthy disagreement and giving each other space to discuss different viewpoints.
- Training on conflict management or resolution skills.
- Offering more and regular feedback.
- Paying more attention to others.
- Setting aside time to get to know each other better to strengthen working relationships, for example – informal lunch or coffee and team building activities.
- Entertaining or listening to other people’s point of views.
- Encouraging more brainstorming and listening to other people’s ideas and ways of thinking.
- Working on flexibility and negotiating to achieve mutually desirable goals, being willing to give and take to achieve mutually beneficial solutions.
- Taking the initiative to fix small problems before they get out of hand.
- Improving interpersonal communication skills.
- Increasing the frequency of communication.
- Conducting regular check-in meetings.
- Practicing empathy; seeing things from other people’s perspective. How it affects others.
- Seeking people’s input when developing and rolling out new processes.
- Encouraging employees to share their problems early.
- Helping people to feel they are part of something by sharing how assigned tasks relate to the big picture of an organization.
- Being open to change and being open-minded.
- Supporting the sharing of ideas, successes and failures and promoting interdepartmental learning.
Despite our best intentions or good efforts in tackling or de-escalating workplace conflicts, there are some situations where proposed solutions might not work.
Likewise, some solutions might work quickly and some can take longer to work. Similarly, it is possible that one conflict could be settled only for another squabble to emerge.
It is important to bring to the attention of human resources, superiors, bosses or managers situations such as:
- When a conflict keeps escalating, increasing or getting out of hand.
- When the strife has gone on for too long.
- When the parties are having difficulty letting go and productivity is declining.
- When the conflict is affecting many people, making others uncomfortable or posing a threat to others.
- When the conflict is causing elevated stress, mistrust, disrespect or ill-feelings between staff.
In these kinds of situations, external intervention is necessary to help straighten out the conflict and support people to succeed in their work.
Consult company policies, guidelines, standard operating procedures or employee handbook on procedures for reporting conflict or internal complaints processes.
Be prepared with facts and documentation for example what is the conflict, when did it start, who are affected, who is causing the conflict, what solutions have been tried etc.
In such scenarios, the conflict would be investigated based on the company’s procedures and a resolution determined.
Even though conflict is stressful, it may not necessarily be a bad thing. It could signify that there is something that needs to change to improve work output.
It can also strengthen working relationships once the conflict has been resolved.
Here are some advantages or benefits of conflicts:
- It can be a learning opportunity; learning from mistakes.
- Strengthens your resilience.
- Improves ability to handle setbacks.
- Brings problems to the surface – opportunity to find out and resolve underlying issues.
- Helps to improve communication.
- Identifies solutions.
- Opens up different points of view.
- Helps to understand other people better, their needs, ways of thinking, and perspectives.
- Building strong relationships after reconciliation.
- Helps develop communication skills in presenting your point of view better with clarity and taking time to patiently listen and understand the needs of others.
Soft skills that can assist in handling conflict consist of: good communication skills, problem solving skills, active listening, brainstorming, decision making, negotiation, leadership and teamwork.
Other helpful qualities are being agreeable, being flexible, willingness to forgive, respectfulness, teachability, accountability, self-awareness, empathy, cooperativeness and a positive attitude and outlook.
When faced with conflict at work, begin by conducting a self-evaluation of your role in the conflict, listen to the other person’s concerns to understand their point of view, work collaboratively towards a common solution and demonstrate willingness to carry out the proposed solution to resolve the conflict.
Additional Resources on How to Manage Conflict at Work
- 12 Techniques For Resolving Conflicts In The Workplace
- How to Handle Conflict in the Workplace
- 8 Essential Tips to Resolve Conflict in the Workplace
- 5 Ways to Manage Conflict in the Workplace
- 10 Tips for Tackling the Toughest Workplace Conflicts
- Dealing with conflict in the workplace
- How to Resolve Workplace Conflicts
- Workplace Conflict Resolution: 10 ways to manage employee conflict and improve office communication, the workplace environment and team productivity
- 5 Essential Steps to Resolve a Conflict at Work
- 6 Strategies to Resolve Conflict at Work