How can leaders resolve conflict in the workplace?
Conflict is an inevitable part of work life. As a leader, you'll have to solve and resolve workplace tensions. Build your skills with these strategies.
By Jack Nodding, 19 July, 2019
Conflict is a fact of life. And especially when it comes to working life. When people have different goals, different needs, different ideas, there’s inevitably going to be a clash.
And this makes conflict resolution a key part of management. So how do you negate and navigate tension, to keep the stress levels at bay and the organisational good vibes flowing? Let’s take a look at how leaders can manage conflict effectively.
Defining Workplace Conflict
Now before you can get stuck into resolving conflict, you need to know how to identify it. To keep things simple, workplace conflict comes three-fold:
1. Personal and/or Relational Conflict:
Personal conflict is personal. It comes down to identity or self-image. And relational conflicts are just as murky. They tend to involve questions of loyalty, breaches of confidence, betrayal (perceived or actual), or a lack of respect.
2. Instrumental Conflict:
Instrumental conflicts are a little drier and hang around the more tangible end of the spectrum. They tend to involve disagreements on goals, structures, procedures and means. Be it organisational, team-based or individual.
3. Conflicts of Interest
This is where instrumental, personal and relational conflicts tend to cross over. Conflicts of interest concern the ways in which the means of achieving goals are distributed. Things like time, money, space, staff, the weight of task importance, personal knowledge and/or expertise.
Now that we’ve clarified what different types of workplace conflict look like, let’s take a look at how you can get stuck into resolving them.
Conflict Resolution Strategy #1 Is the conflict hot or cold?
When it comes to effective conflict resolution, leaders need to be able to read the weather. So stop, look, listen and think. Is the conflict hot or cold? Because conflict resolution requires the right temperature. Warm.
Are the parties involved highly emotional? Speaking loudly? Perhaps shouting? Is there steam radiating of their very being? If so, take this heat-seeking missile out of the room and give them space to cool down.
An intervention is also needed if things are a little too chilled. Do either party seem to be suppressing emotions? Do they look like the tin man? Or do they seem a tad passive-aggressive? Muttering under their breath, pursing their lips, or dropping the temperature in the room by 10 degrees with a look?
As a leader, you need to decide whether you’re managing a hot or cold conflict. And then warm it up or cool it down accordingly. Because conflict resolution is a little like cooking. It works best at the optimal temperature. So, you need to bring the conflict into a temperature zone where it can actually be useful and productive.
When you’re bringing folks in a hot conflict together, you need to establish clear ground rules at the outset. Before anyone has a chance to speak. Once everyone’s agreed, try giving them turns with the talking stick. Give each person a strict time limit to speak. And ask them a question that requires them to speak about themselves and their own feelings rather than attacking the other person.
As for cold conflicts, it is essential to bring the conflicting parties together, ask the tough questions, and engage them in constructive communication. But be careful. Conflict is often cold because so much feeling is being repressed. So, you need to warm it up without any temperature explosions. Facilitate debate and dialogue and thaw out the conflict enough to start the process of resolution.
Conflict Resolution Strategy #2 Communicate assertively
Assertive communication skills are effective communication skills. And so, communicating assertively in conflict resolution is absolutely key. Assertive meaning not passive, and definitely not aggressive. It’s how leaders increase the likelihood of effective conflict resolution. The kind where all parties feel like they’ve been heard.
An aggressive approach to “resolving” conflict may produce short term outcomes. It forces a solution on one or more parties. But it really doesn’t produce an effective long-term resolution. Force doesn’t equal acceptance.
Passive communication is damaging in a different sort of way. A passive approach to conflict resolution may ultimately affect your credibility as a leader. After all, passivity isn’t exactly the calling card of leadership. You’re there to determine and implement a solution. And avoidance doesn’t resolve conflict.
On the flipside, assertive communication manages conflict a million times more effectively. As a leader, you need to set expectations for yourself and the head-butting parties. That way, all involved will communicate their personal positions, needs and feelings in an open and respectful dialogue.
Conflict Resolution Strategy #3 Find good for you, good for me solutions
Effective conflict resolution requires Win-Win solutions. And these sorts of solutions can only come from one thing: collaboration. Collaboration is that magical tool that allows leaders to transform the competitive arena of conflict into one of teamwork.
And when it comes to fostering collaboration in conflict resolution, the key thing for leaders to remember is: you’re NOT there to create the solution! You’re there to guide it! To sit in like a guardian angel. And guide the feuding parties to find their own solutions.
Because managing conflict means leading the group. Not taking sides. And so, by guiding both sides towards a solution you ensure you’re (mostly) impartial in the whole debacle.
So, create a space where both parties can sit down, share perspectives, engage and collaborate in producing a conflict resolution. This is how leaders can get the feuding parties back on the same page. And it’s the most sure-fire way to ensure everyone’s completely satisfied with the outcome.
Conflict Resolution Strategy #4 Active listening
Leaders need to understand the underlying interests, needs and concerns of both sides in a conflict. Which makes active listening crucial in managing conflict. Leaders need to listen fully, empathically and attentively to both sides.
Ask each party what their particular pain point is. And identify who or what is causing it. Then find out what their ideal solution would be. Once you have a solid grasp of both perspectives, you have the means to figure out that coveted “win-win” solution. So, you can create satisfied employees for company success and happiness.
And leaders aren’t the only folks who need to use their ears. As a leader, you need to emphasise that you want to resolve the conflict through dialogue. State expectations that both parties must actively listen to the deemed “opposition”.
Active listening in the form of looking directly at the speaker, allowing each person to finish before speaking, and listening without defending their own position.
This prevents the conversation from spiralling into “he said” - “she said” - “they said” bickering. Or exploding into a fully-fledged war. And once everyone feels they’ve been truly heard… voilà! They’ll be more receptive to the other person’s opinion and to negotiating a solution going forward.
Assuming you’ve deployed and employed these fierce four conflict resolution strategies, congratulations! All of the (no longer) feuding parties should be ready to go on their merry way. Towards agreeable solutions. Without any unresolved grudges. Moving as a united front, into the sunset, towards workplace harmony. Resolution victory is yours. Conflict resolved and solved.