At some point in your career, either as a team member or as a leader, you’re going to encounter conflict in your workplace.
In a report from January 2020 by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), just over a third of the employees (35%) who participated in the survey said they’d experienced an interpersonal conflict, either as an isolated or an ongoing dispute, during the year. Unfortunately, 44% of these employees also stated the conflict hadn’t been fully or mostly resolved.
Sometimes conflict can be healthy, depending on the culture. They can enable employees to achieve targets or work towards organisational objectives. However, it can also be detrimental, creating resentment that, if allowed to fester, may result in lower levels of productivity and a deterioration in morale. As part of the broad skillset they should build, leaders must learn to identify the impact a conflict can have, and then they must manage any conflict that does occur effectively.
Below, we explore what conflict management is and what to do when it arises in the workplace.
What is conflict management?
The terms ‘conflict management’ and ‘conflict resolution’ are used interchangeably, but ‘conflict management’ is the practice of identifying situations or circumstances in which conflict emerges or could do, and then addressing them. The aim is to reduce any negative impact of conflict and enhance the positive ones for all parties.
‘Conflict resolution’ concentrates more on tackling conflict and, as the term ‘resolution’ would suggest, bringing it to a satisfactory conclusion. Although the two concepts are similar, conflict management does contain elements of conflict resolution.
Managing conflict in your workplace
By managing a workplace disagreement respectfully and optimistically, you can foster growth and learning in the organisation. Making changes to working environments and to people’s roles are effective ways to pre-empt conflict, but what happens when conflict does arise? What do you do? Below we provide some tips on how to manage conflict when it flares up:
Understand the source of the conflict
If you understand the cause of the conflict, you’ll learn how it came to grow as well. Not only this, but you’ll also be taking the first step towards a resolution if the parties involved can agree on what the actual disagreement is itself. To accomplish this, you must make yourself aware of which needs are not being met on both sides and foster mutual understanding of the issues. Ask as many questions as is necessary until each party has grasped all the issues.
Recognise when a team member is causing others stress
Negative behaviour and poor performance create stress and disharmony. Poor time-keeping, gossiping about others, being bad-tempered, not sharing information, avoidance of unpopular team tasks, harsh criticism: all of these things can be damaging.
Encourage your employees to come forward if they have a work issue or a problem in their personal lives so that you can understand their behaviour at work and address it. Be willing to step in as soon as you realise there’s a problem, whether it’s a performance issue or a behavioural one, and address it. The employee might not even be aware of their impact and is likely to respond to a simple chat. If you’re dealing with a performance issue, arrange a meeting to discover if there’s a deeper, underlying issue for the poor performance.
Speak separately to each person involved
If an open disagreement is taking place, or you sense one on the horizon, take each party aside for an informal chat. This chat should take place somewhere quiet and where employees will feel comfortable expressing what’s on their mind. They may feel unsure about discussing the conflict, and even more so about dealing with it, so let them talk, and avoid any assumptions. Reassure them you’ll keep everything they say private, and that you’ll only relay what they say to the other parties involved in the conflict (which is likely to be necessary to resolve it) if the employee grants you permission first.
Active listening is an essential skill, especially in conflict management and resolution, and establishes a safe, non-judgmental space for people to speak honestly. Lay down a few ground rules if you feel it’s necessary. You should be positive but assertive in your approach and remain impartial. Allow each party an equal amount of time to discuss their concerns, and encourage them to speak further so you can understand the cause of the conflict and identify potential solutions.
Bring both sides of the argument together
The key to the success of this lies in forming and maintaining good professional relationships and developing a collaborative, transparent, consistent and fair environment. Approach the discussion constructively, with a view to solving problems. Prompt the opposing sides to acknowledge each other’s views, and to propose changes they could make to move forward and resolve the matter. All throughout, remain objective and focus on the individuals discussing their options.
Steer clear of office gossip
Although a certain amount of workplace gossip is inevitable and can exist without causing problems, it can also generate tension and produce misunderstandings. Participating will only fuel it further. Instead of entertaining gossip, and building trust, keep the employees’ issues private and confidential. If you hear any malicious gossip, speak to the person (or persons) involved and make them aware that spreading unsubstantiated rumours isn’t acceptable and, additionally, that it could be interpreted as bullying or harassment.
Remove employees from conflict situations
Some conflicts can get very heated, especially when there’s a lot at stake. A disruptive or troublesome employee can affect the rest of the team, in which case it might be appropriate to remove this person from the situation. The removal can prevent the situation from escalating and paves the way for calmer, more rational discussions. You could move the employee to another area of the workplace, to another team or to another role. However, you choose to remove the employee from the situation, ensure that the transfer is fair.
Decide on preventive strategies for the future
A conflict situation is a learning opportunity and a chance to nurture your own conflict management skills. You must think about how you’re handling the conflict and, when you resolve the conflict, learn the lessons from the whole episode. What caused the conflict? How did people behave during it? Did any measures aggravate the situation? Which approach resolved the situation? Answering all of these questions can help you determine strategies that minimise possible future conflict, or, if a disagreement does take place, to deal with the situation quickly so that it doesn’t derail progress.
Book a conflict management course with us
Managing conflict entails identifying conflict, potential or existing, and taking a proactive approach to approach the situation and reduce the conflict’s impact. Our course ‘Conflict Transformation: Tackling Conflict in the Workplace’ course teaches you to detect circumstances that could generate conflict and to manage any workplace conflict that does occur effectively. We offer our course in this important leadership skill online and in physical face-to-face settings.
To find out more about this course and book your place on it, click on the course link. You’re also welcome to contact us via the form on our Contact page, email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on 0161 826 3139. You can discover more of our courses on our Courses page and book your places by visiting the relevant course page or by contacting us using the previously stated contact details.
It’s our pleasure to play a part in developing the leaders of today and of the future. We look forward to answering any queries you may have about our training and assisting you in your professional development journey.
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