As a leader, you’ll encounter conflict in some shape or form during your service to your organisation, and it’s important that you deal with it when it arises. 

Failing to address conflict situations, potential or existing, can have catastrophic consequences that will make your role even more challenging. The question is, when do you merely manage conflict, and when do you resolve it? 

Below we discuss the difference between conflict management and conflict resolution and explore instances when you should manage conflict situations and when you should intervene more directly and resolve the situation.

What is conflict management?

Technically speaking, conflict management and conflict resolution are two different concepts and don’t have the same objective. Although a leader must manage any conflict when it arises, the purpose of conflict management is to minimise the impact of conflict. The leader must be observant, keeping alert for any situations in which conflict could emerge and implementing measures to prevent disagreements from materialising. However, they must also be able to identify instances in which the conflict could be productive and manage this in a fair and ethical manner. 

What is conflict resolution?

Conflict resolution is a formal or informal process in which the two disputing parties try to resolve a disagreement peacefully. The dispute could be between individuals or between groups. A co-worker could experience run-ins with a superior, or a client could develop a grievance against a service provider. Alternatively, a management team could witness disagreement from employees, or departments could be battling over an issue. 

What’s the difference between conflict management and conflict resolution?

Conflict management is pragmatic and doesn’t concern itself as much with particular instances of conflict. Its purpose is to mitigate the impact of conflict and is more about finding tools to construct agreements that enable people to cooperate effectively despite their differences. Often, conflict manager serves longer-term goals of improving learning, processes or systems and fostering a more open-minded culture within the organisation. 

Conflict management is often applied in conflicts that have a history and in which the disagreement stems from the different values each party in the conflict holds. In some circumstances, the disputing parties will have reached an absolute stalemate with no possibility of resolution. You’ll then have to employ conflict management. 

Conflict resolution responds to the requirement of meeting human psychological needs. Conflict resolution tends to be content-centred, short-term-focused and concentrates on resolving issues in a relationship. Its purpose is to find a positive outcome from a situation that is zero-sum initially. Ultimately, conflict resolution is about ending conflicts and may entail the use of a third party to mediate between the disputants.

When do I use conflict management?

Not all conflict is bad. There are several instances in which the conflict can actually be good:

  • Situations in which the conflict focuses on the future by concentrating on results and outcomes: These types of conflicts will work on bringing about a beneficial future for all the parties. They understand a common future vision, and the parties will strive to generate new ideas, processes or systems that work towards making this vision a reality 
  • Situations in which conflict is seeking the best solution, bringing people together, and generally being considerate of others: In this type of conflict, everyone is heard, and they’re willing to remain open-minded and express their thoughts without feeling as if others are attacking them. In such situations, conflict management encourages a group mentality, promoting a spirit of cooperation, and people are more willing to be helpful and implement solutions
  • Situations in which the conflict remains about the issue: A person’s actions may cause annoyance or frustration, but the conflict centres around the action and doesn’t degenerate into attacks on the person’s character. A person who likes a tidy office kitchen, for instance, may dislike the fact that some of the other employees don’t wipe the bench after using it. The person feeling the annoyance will refrain from labelling their co-workers as ‘lazy’ or ‘inconsiderate’. They just want the kitchen to be clean

Management is preferable to a resolution in these circumstances. Despite the differences occurring between the parties involved in the conflict, they can still learn to work alongside each other effectively.

When do I use conflict resolution in the workplace?

Bad conflict is the other side of the coin and can take its toll on morale and productivity. In these circumstances, the leader must help to resolve the conflict so that everyone affected can pursue their duties free of the distraction and disruption the conflict has created. Situations in which conflict is bad include the following:

  • Situations in which the conflict focuses on the past: As much as we might like to, it’s impossible to change the past, and the past has no say in an organisation’s current business. Dwelling on the past is debilitating. The conflict must be resolved for a brighter future
  • Situations in which the conflict is alienating people or dividing them: Often, there will be instances in which someone else’s wishes or needs are made out to be less important than another’s. This creates a system a little like a class system and calls personal needs into question, and it’s why bad conflict polarises people
  • Situations in which the conflict concentrates on the person, not on the issue: In these situations, the conflict stems from a generalisation about the conflict and the use of the issue to state thoughts about the person’s character, such as the kitchen example mentioned above, only the person experiencing the annoyance has referred to the other party as ‘lazy’ or ‘inconsiderate’ or is at least thinking this. Whereas a good conflict will focus on the specifics of what is causing the difficulties, in bad conflicts, people make generalisations about another person’s character or there is likely to be an attack or other action that personalises the issue and transforms the person on the receiving end of the criticism into the embodiment of the issue

All of the above situations are bad conflicts and will require resolution. A leader should step in to find a solution so that the conflict doesn’t spill out of control 

Book a conflict transformation course with us

When dealing with conflict situations, or potential ones, you have to tread carefully, and this involves remaining calm and objective, taking care not to offend or hurt parties who may be feeling slightly bruised by the conflict already. Special conflict management and resolution training can help you to approach conflict situations much more effectively, which is why we’d recommend our course Conflict Transformation: Tackling Conflict in the Workplace

This course guides you on how to address conflict positively, assertively, and confidently. As well as learning about the causes of conflict, the emotional elements of conflict, and receiving an introduction to different models of intervention, you’ll look at issues such as needs versus wants and addictions versus preferences, victimisation, blame and anger, and requests and action. You’ll receive insight into how to communicate your own interventions and be able to identify and handle conflict situations sensibly and fairly. As a result, you’ll be able to transform conflict situations to minimise the impact of conflict on performance and improve the working environment in your organisation.

To find out more about this course and book your place on it, click on the course link. We also invite you to contact us via the form on our Contact page, email at enquiries@inpd.co.uk or on 0161 826 3139. You can use these details to get in touch with us and learn more about not just this course, but any of the training on our Courses page or to book your place on them. 

Understanding the difference between conflict management and conflict resolution, and when to apply the right approach, is important to mitigate and resolve conflict successfully. Conflict is a distraction, and when you deal with it correctly, you can steer projects back on track and continue progressing towards your organisation’s goals.


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