The Skills & Approaches for Resolving Conflicts in the Workplace
In our recent survey, we learned that 69% of businesses find recruitment difficult and therefore, the loss of a member of staff can have serious implications. Conflict in the workplace is all too common and if left unchecked, increases turnover.
Statistics show that the average person spends 92,120 hours at work in their lifetime. For many of us, this will mean we spend more time with colleagues throughout the week than with family and friends, so if conflicts arise they need to be quashed before they have an impact on the wider business.
To help you navigate the hows and whys of tackling conflict and finding a swift resolution in the workplace, we have collated advice from HR professionals and Business leaders in the UK and further afield.
Put Yourself In Their Shoes
In the workplace individuals often come together in teams with a variety of levels of power, values, attitudes, and social factors. As these are often significant they can easily instigate conflict. For that reason, when dealing with conflict, clearing your lens from all other distractions and focusing solely on the perspective of the individual in question is essential as a skill to resolve issues. You will never get to truly understand the motive behind the conflict – no matter how many questions you ask – if you’re not able to put yourself in their shoes.
Understand The Underlying Cause
When attempting to resolve conflict, invite the person causing it to sit down and attempt to discover the underlying issues behind it – what’s going on? Is the problem based on differing values or is it a simple misunderstanding? how would they like to resolve it to both their and your satisfaction? This involves asking great questions to diagnose the situation. At the end of the day, conflict often arises from differences in values, what’s important to one person may not be important to another.
Then Find The Middle Ground
Finally, knowing how to find a compromise is key. Don’t resolve the conflict to satisfy just your own agenda because it’ll only bring about more conflict. Think about it: from the moment you mention your concern to the individual your concern turns also into theirs. Imagine one of your co-workers being late to work every day. It’s tempting to resolve the situation quickly by telling them to be on time from now on. This might solve your problem, but because you haven’t taken time to understand their point of view it might not solve theirs. Compromise – which involves giving and taking on both sides – usually ends up with both parties walking away equally satisfied and being able to follow through on commitments to action.
Shaun Bradley is the Director of People at Perkbox.
#1 Lead by example
It’s important for the leadership team within any business to lead by example, especially when it comes to behaviour and attitudes towards conflicts. Consider investing in training programmes for your senior staff and managers to learn about how to handle difficult conversations and challenging team members.
The development courses will encourage your senior team to listen to people speak, take on board points of view and address employee worries calmly and effectively. Conflicts can occur when there is a clash of viewpoints, values or morals within the workplace so it’s important to listen before you react in any difficult situation to minimise the conflict further.
#2 Clear communication
A lack of clear communication in the workplace can lead to uncertainty, a sense of misdirection and an increase in stress – all factors that, when combined, are likely to result in conflict. By clearly defining roles and levels of responsibility, you’ll avoid any conflict arising as a result of decision-making and delegation of work. Plus, staff will be able to be more productive and at ease in their roles.
Healthy relationships at work are the key to a successful and rewarding organisation so, if disputes are occurring, considers using companies such as ACAS and CIPD to help with the creation of disciplinary procedures.
#3 Finding a resolve
Mediating between both parties involved in the dispute is a quick way to get to the root of the problem; not only will this allow employees to be vocal about their concerns, it will also enable you as an employer to highlight any arising issues you have in the company.
Having an impartial person that can understand both parties arguments and make a fair judgment on the outcome of a conflict has a number of benefits including restoring relationships in the long run.
Gavin White is the Managing Director at Autotech Recruit.
The following are my top tips for restoring harmony and defusing potential conflict issues:
- Plan things in advance; think about the goal of the conversation and the words you will use. What does the other person need?
- Is it the right time for this conversation? If you’re both too angry, pause and delay the conversation until you’re both calmer and able to think more rationally.
- Stay calm and be open to the other person’s point of view.
- Share perspectives on what the issue is. What are the facts, what are the feelings and perceptions of all people involved?
- Express yourself without assigning blame. Listen to the other person without trying to defend yourself and criticising them.
- Work together to problem-solve. Ask questions like “What do you think we should do about this?” and “What will make this easier for both of us?”
To keep morale high and avoid conflicts, Bain and Gray have installed a buddy system in the office to encourage teamwork and to avoid issues escalating. Each consultant has a buddy who assists with personal development and deals with any issues that are thrown up as well as areas for improvement. They also believe in a ‘praise and train’ approach which co-founder Emily Bain says is tried and tested:
‘We have found that staff always benefit from regular praise and updates on how they are performing. It’s the little things that matter. We also give the team achievable incentives to meet group targets as these pull them together and reward them for working together effectively. Regular ‘events’ also boost morale, these range from days out, group training and activities that bring everyone together and focus them on key areas of development. We also run an incredibly successful annual ‘wellness week’ where staff enjoy a company-funded health benefit each day; sessions with a nutritionist, a doctor, a masseuse, and a group yoga session amongst other things.’
Emily is a founding Director of recruiters Bain and Gray.
Workplace conflict can come in a number of forms, including outright bullying, constant arguing, clashes of opinion and incivility — a silent disease that can spread through an organisation and cause a huge amount of disruption. However, with the right performance management processes in place and the right training, conflicts can be reduced and dealt with swiftly, to avoid damage to your company culture and morale.
- Don’t avoid workplace conflict
According to a UK study of more than 1,500 employees, 91% of workers thought their organisations didn’t adequately deal with workplace bullying. Many managers and HR executives turn a blind eye to internal conflicts, believing that as the individuals involved are adults, they can be left to resolve the conflict on their own. This is a dangerous and short-sighted approach that essentially equates to conflict avoidance — and workplace avoidance is a calling card of a terrible manager.
Conflict is a performance management issue that should be recognised and addressed head-on before it has the opportunity to escalate and become toxic. Conflict needs to be approached in a structured way and employees need to feel that their opinions and thoughts are being heard and respected.
- Managers should be given appropriate training to deal with workplace conflict
Just because a manager has been appointed or elevated to a particular position, this doesn’t mean they have the necessary skills and training to address and resolve workplace conflict. As such, HR should always provide training to managers so they know what processes and protocols to follow, should a conflict arise. People management isn’t just a HR responsibility — managers play an integral role, but they need the necessary building blocks to be able to combat it.
- Let employees know that they will be listened to and their opinions will be respected
Communication is key in relation to workplace conflict resolution. Employees need to know they are going to be heard and have their opinions respected. They also need to feel able to approach their managers, without fear of being brushed off.
To keep the lines of communication open and honest, managers and employees should have regular one-on-one meetings and performance discussions. During these meetings, managers should encourage employees to open up about conflicts and grievances that might be affecting performance, engagement or morale. Managers should also provide private spaces where all the necessary parties can get together and, in an informal environment, discuss points of agreement and disagreement. Discussion should always focus on facts, rather than veering off into personal attacks.
- Set clear behavioural expectations and make them part of your company culture
Company culture, morals and values will filter through an organisation and impact employees at every level. Make it clear that outright unhelpful and destructive conflict will not be condoned in your business. Show employees how you deal with conflict in a healthy way and, in time, conflict will become less of an issue within your company.
The key role of the leadership of a company is to create clarity and understanding about what are the values of the business and how these translate into actions. These need to be understood and shared by everyone so that when the leader is not there, which is most of the time, they are still are applied.
The values of an organisation set the rules by which it lives and defines the corporate personality and the culture. If the values are unclear there will be conflict and anxiety because people will not be sure what makes them a villain and what makes them a hero in the organisation.
If everyone lives by the same rules, the same values then people trust each other. If there are not shared values then at the extreme there is anarchy and generally, people do not feel part of a coherent whole. Shared positive values also allow people to feel a pride in the organisation that they work for.
Not only do there need to be clear values but they need to be ranked in order of priority so that when there is a conflict between, for example, being on time versus doing a really great job everyone agrees what is most important. This avoids conflict because people will have a shared understanding of how they should behave. In our Responsible Organisation Charter© having values that translate into behaviour and systems across the organisation is the first principle as it is fundamental to creating a harmonious organisation.
Sarah Brown is a Corporate Values Strategist and co-founder of inspire2aspire.
Teams now can be extremely diverse; you could, for example, have multiple generations working together in one team. That there will sometimes be disagreement and conflict is inescapable. There are, however, ways to manage conflict effectively.
In a conflict, there are three things. Interdependence between those in conflict, the perception in how each party sees the conflict and their part in it and resources that usually start the conflict off in the first place, like money, power or prestige. When attempting to deal with conflict your ultimate objective is to minimise harm and encourage positive outcomes, and the skills you will need are communication, negotiation, mediation and decision-making.
From a communications perspective, consider that it is your role to listen and attempt to understand the conflict as perceived by the different parties involved. It is important to encourage those involved to not apportion blame but instead focus upon facts as much as possible. Mediation skills allow to you to encourage different parties to hear each other without expressing your own personal standpoint, and negotiation allows you to find a mutually acceptable outcome. Where a mutually acceptable outcome isn’t possible, making a decision that is grounded in fairness and understanding is the next best thing.
Try to prevent conflict arising by creating an environment that encourages positive communication. Be clear about job roles and responsibilities, have systems in place that allow employee feedback and ensure managers have the skills that they need to lead effectively.
Conflict in the workplace is all too common. Here are 3 tips that will help you handle them.
Have an Escape Plan
We want to prevent any outbreak of fire, but in case it happens, it’s good to have a plan. Similarly, we want to prevent an outburst of conflicts, but in case it happens (and we know it does), it’s good to have a plan for handling it. It gives us information about the steps we need to follow.
TIP: create a step-by-step guide for co-workers on what to do in case of a conflict. Let them know about it or even involve them in the process of preparing it.
By having a plan to handle conflicts a company acknowledges the conflicts are part of their work, which is normal. it shows a company is serious to address conflicts effectively and does not ignore them until they escalate. By being informed in advance, employees know what to expect when they face a conflict.
Cool Down the Heat
In the heat of the conflict, it’s easy to get carried away by strong emotions, saying things you might later regret. The chemical reactions in the body make it difficult to clearly articulate or listen with attention when under such strong emotions. This is the crucial moment to prevent the hidden danger – namely escalation of the conflict, where things get out of control.
If the emotions are not cooled down on time, the conflict can escalate like a wildfire.
By staying calm and giving the opportunity to all involved in a conflict to be heard without judgment acknowledging you see they are hurt by what happened reassuring them you trust they will be able to sort this out- alone or with a help of a neutral mediator offering them to talk with a mediator or person qualified in conflict resolution.
Focus on the Lesson
A big trap in conflicts is talking about what happened for too long. Why? Because everybody has their own story on what happened (assuming they’re right and the other one is wrong) it creates bigger frustration, emotions and passionate opposition (calling in the blame game). It stays in the past- and nobody can change the past.
TIP: Instead of talking about the spilt milk bring focus on what would you do differently next time, so you would prevent such situation from happening.
Each conflict is an opportunity to see what is not working or who is hurt but also to find out what do we really want, if we have goals in common and how can we reach them together. Focusing on the lesson from this specific conflict, we get one step closer to not repeating the same mistake again. This approach enables personal growth, team evolution and expansion of a company.
Simona Frumen is a Conflict Resolution Expert + Mediator
A less obvious, but more impactful way to handle workplace conflict is to manage your own emotional state. Conflict is normally stressful and puts us in a reactive, defensive state, which can make the situation worse.
If the conflict is on-going it can affect our sleep, which in turn can sap energy and clarity. This is a dangerous cycle and it’s important to break it. By doing so you are more likely to gain a clearer, more balanced view of the situation and respond in a more productive way. When you prioritise your sleep, you will be better able to cope with the conflict or even resolve it.
Here are some things you can do to create a better emotional state:
- Take time out. Consciously remove yourself from the environment for a day or two and do something you are likely to enjoy.
- Appreciate what is going well in your life, or the good relationships you have with friends and family. Studies show that daily mindful gratitude reflections can build resilience to stress.
- Recognise that you have coping skills and character strengths that might be useful at this time e.g. humour, determination, optimism.
- Listen to your favourite music or watch a funny movie. It can change your mood and improve your capacity to deal with challenging work situations.
- Reflect on some happy memories and savour them until you feel your mood lifting.
- Don’t skip meals. Missing out on breakfast or lunch can cause blood sugar levels to drop resulting in a state of being ‘hangry’ (hungry + angry). Avoid difficult conversations or colleagues if you are likely to be in this state – your reactions may be more extreme than you intend.
- Remember that this too shall pass.
Noel Clerkin is the Founder of Wiser Working, a resilience and stress management training company.
Most companies will have a benchmark of sensing the workplace climate by how many formal grievances have been raised. My view on this one is to inquire how much time are managers spending on dealing with conflict either between individuals or across dysfunctional teams. The best way of dealing with any disagreement or conflict is to nip it in the bud. Conflict is an opportunity it usually stems from the need to change.
Most would agree, we don’t enjoy dealing with conflict. Having those difficult conversations very often feels extremely uncomfortable – unfortunately, the longer it goes on, the worse it becomes. Once it has reached a point where an individual feels they need to escalate their complaint to raising a formal grievance, the relationship is then very difficult to restore and is usually finished.
Leaders and Managers need to be able to spot the signs quickly. Raising their Emotional intelligence, taking time to get to know their teams and solve issues quickly is important. Having great conversations with employees and really listening to what is being said is important. Asking the right questions at the right time get to understand what may be driving an individual to take a stance or to understand their view of the world. Whenever I am meditating I can guarantee you that it is never what has been presented as the issue entirely it is always something that may have happened years before which sits at the heart of it.
There are generally said to be five conflict resolving approaches:
Managers need to be able to:
- Build relationships – get to know your team individually make time
- Actively listen – be in the moment
- Have emotional intelligence – raise your self-awareness
- Having great conversations with employees – open questions
- Give regular feedback on the behavioural element of people’s roles
- Share your observations
Pamela Whitehead is a Chartered FCIPD and Director of PJW HR Consultancy.
“Only three things happen naturally in organisations – friction, confusion and underperformance. Everything else requires Leadership.” – Peter Drucker
How should people be managed at work? How can employees improve the competitiveness and efficiency of your organisation? How should conflicts of interest be resolved?
The quality of workforce relationships impacts organisational performance and how employees experience their work environment. A central tenet of ‘Positive Employee Relations’ is that employees’ terms and conditions include both the contractual arrangements and the managerial relationships to which they are subjected.
Employee relations occurs wherever people work. ER problems top the HR agenda in most organisations. It’s not just about the utilisation of human resources but the workplace experiences and expectations of both management and employees. ER operates in the space between conflicts of interest and cooperation.
It’s been found that Positive Employee Relations can be an intangible and enduring asset, a source of sustained competitive advantage.
How do you Achieve Positive Employee Relations?
- Ensure that your managers and supervisors know the law and are trained to spot issues and resolve conflicts.
- Treat all employees with both dignity and respect.
- Be upfront in dealing with employee sharing as much information as possible.
- Listen carefully when employees raise issues or come to you to discuss problems – give them your full and undivided attention.
- Establish fair systems and make consistent decisions based on your policies and rules – resolve issues as quickly as possible.
- Most importantly, be fair. Consider how you would want to be treated in a similar situation and make your decisions accordingly.
Building positive relationships with employees can be done with relative ease. But knowing what to do is different from actually doing it day in day out.
Click here to watch Jerome’s 3-Step Program video for resolving conflict in the workplace.
Jerome founded Forde HR Cloud, a HRIT platform that uses the most advanced cloud technology to bring a virtual HR office to start-ups and SMEs.