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5 Proven Conflict Management Strategies Used In The Workplace

Posted by Paul O'Keefe on Jun 28, 2016 10:15:00 AM

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Conflict in the workplace happens. Research shows that the overwhelming majority, 85%, of workers deal with conflict and that its cost is high. One study found that U.S. workers spent nearly 3 hours per week embroiled in conflict, which equated to $359 billion of paid time (at $17.95/hour) or 385 million work days. But, the real issue is not the conflict; the issue is how it’s handled. A healthy work environment must have a healthy dose of conflict merely because people are different with differing points of view.

Here's an important point: If there's no conflict, your employees are hiding their real thoughts and feelings. Such a situation will explode in your face at some point or another. Hidden, denied or ignored conflict festers and grows into resentment over time. Neglected conflict leads to absenteeism, sickness, rifts in the organization and organizational exodus. In fact, 25% of workers admit that conflict avoidance has led to their own absenteeism or illness, and over 30% state that it has led to someone leaving the organization. Conflict leads to diminished productivity, squelched creativity and decreased collaboration. One study found that almost 10% of workers admit that conflict has led to the failure of a project.

For your organization to be successful, it must have effective conflict management strategies in place. Leadership must be ready to deal with conflict. The benefits of meeting conflict far outweigh avoiding it. Here's heartening news: 75% of workers identified a positive outcome when a conflict was handled well.

Following are four strategies for conflict management that can be used for the resolution of conflict in the workplace. These work for small disagreements, as well as conflicts that threaten to engulf an entire organization.

Conflict Management Strategies For Identifying Conflict and Dealing with It

This is preventative action. Keep an ear to the ground. Go to disgruntled employees. Address the gossip. Do all of this as delicately as possible. Just make sure you do it.

1. Don’t Wait

Trying to avoid conflict, hoping it resolves itself, is a fast track to a huge future blow up that can’t be contained. Waiting allows resentment to fester. Rarely does a conflict just “disappear.” Instead, usually one party will take the brunt of the conflict and “suck” it up, while the other "wins." Don't sit on it, hoping it pans out–address it immediately.

2. Navigate Conflict Fairly

  1. Have both sides air their grievances in a private conversation with an impartial party.

  2. Bring the two parties together in the presence of others who can be objective mediators and allow them to air their grievances.

  3. Don't permit behavior or words that are overly hurtful and mean. Manipulative, controlling behavior and words are unacceptable.

3. Workplace Conflict Resolution Demands 'Walking in Their Shoes'

It’s easy to get entrenched in one’s own reality and not consider any other points of view. This strategy demands that we step outside of ourselves and make a genuine effort to perceive life from the position of the other person. This is not a natural inclination. As such, this conflict management strategy usually requires outside guidance from someone not invested in the conflict. However, if the parties are trained in this strategy, they can step away, take time analyzing the other person’s position and then come together to build a workable solution.

4. Make it Personal

This doesn't mean taking the offense or problem personally. On the contrary, you shift away from looking at the opposing person as a distant, unfeeling adversary and, instead, view her as a person with a family, friends, hopes and dreams. This transforms them from an opponent into a real person with real problems, trying to make it like everyone else.

CONFLICT RESOLUTION: The Skill That Makes A Difference [VIDEO]

Craft 'Win-Win' Solutions When Managing Workplace Conflict

Workplace conflict resolution occurs more quickly when the parties work toward crafting a win-win solution instead of battling in a zero-sum game where the winner takes all. All too often, people enter into conflict thinking that if the other side wins, they lose and vice versa. This doesn’t have to be the case. Contrary to popular belief, a solution can work for the benefit of both parties. It may take more communication, time and compromise to work it out; however, it's possible. Here are some ways to make that a reality:

Help People Attain What They Want

Listen to the parties in the conflict. Hear what they’re truly asking for from the situation. If they're millennials, they may want flexibility or more effort put into their leadership development. If they're baby boomers, they may want more responsibility and job security. Thus, what appears to be two conflicting views may actually be two sets of mutually attainable desires.

See Conflict as an Opportunity

One of the most effective conflict management strategies used in the workplace is to see the conflict as an opportunity to be seized and not a hazard to be avoided. If properly handled, it makes an excellent learning opportunity. It's also useful for developing your leaders. Always look for the benefit in a conflict, because there is one.

Place the Opposing Parties in a Conflict Management Course

Sometimes people need to learn a new behavior. It’s possible that the conflicting colleagues were raised in an environment that didn’t resolve issues well and they never learned healthy conflict behavior. In this case, they won't be able to get to healthy, productive conflict and authentic collaboration on their own. They will need intensive training.

Diligent Follow Up

No training is effective without follow up. Diligent follow up must occur in the weeks and months following the training. Some measure must be in place to ensure that the employees who take the training reflect upon it and implement it consistently over time.

Applying Conflict Management Strategies Used in the Workplace to the Real World

It’s easy to talk about conflict management strategies used in the workplace in a theoretical sense. The real difficulty arises in the application of these strategies to the real world.

How do you take this from theory to practical application, and what does it look like?

These strategies can easily be applied to the real world. Let’s look at two common examples of conflict in the workplace: Conflict between a supervisor and their employees and conflict between two colleagues. The first situation is a conflict with a power imbalance and the second situation is between equals. Some of the aforementioned conflict management strategies used in the workplace can easily be applied to these situations. It takes wisdom and experience to recognize which ones are best and what it'll look like.

Conflict Management Strategies Used in the Workplace: Conflict between a Supervisor and Employees

This most commonly appears as conflict with a micro-managing boss, a supervisor who has unethical, immoral or illegal practices or a territorial manager who offers no opportunities for growth. Let's look at the micro-managing boss.

Conflict with a Micro-managing Supervisor

The micro-managing supervisor serves as a handy, “catch-all” example and can encompass the bully boss, the “control freak,” and the territorial manager who offers no opportunities for growth. Which of the conflict management strategies used in the workplace should be applied to this case?

Don’t Wait for Things to Work Themselves Out

It's easy to “wait it out” with hopes that the tension will die down, the offended employees will simply forget and the situation will better itself. Generally though, this sort of conflict will not resolve itself. Overbearing, difficult supervisors, if left unchecked, tend to become increasingly difficult and overbearing, not less. For a difficult supervisor to improve, they must be forced to examine themselves and change.

Navigate the Conflict Fairly

Ask yourself: Can you be impartial in this situation? If you can't honestly say "yes" then find someone who can – either an outside mediator or another leader.

Once you have an impartial person overseeing the mediation, give both sides the opportunity to state their position fully and openly. Make sure that you’ve provided a safe environment where they can be open without fear of negative repercussions or concern that what they say will leave the room.

Second, bring the two parties together if at all possible. This may be tricky because of the power imbalance. It's at this point that many subordinates balk because they’re intimidated by the supervisor or they fear negative repercussions for being too open and honest. You must ensure that they'll suffer no negative consequences from coming forward. If the two parties come together, make sure the supervisor isn’t able to use manipulative, controlling behavior or demeaning words to intimidate the subordinate into silence. Also, beware of tears, empty expressions of contrition, etc. that are used by either party to manipulate or control the situation.

Third, once this discussion has taken place, you must deal with the actual issue. It's not enough to just “air” the grievances; you must address the problem. Here's where the real work of conflict resolution begins. It's best if you can craft a win-win solution, such as:

  1. Upper-level leadership may need to work with the supervisor to become a better leader and assist employees in having a stronger voice, which will lead to employee loyalty and longevity.
  2. The supervisor may need to receive in-depth training in developing better, freer relationships with subordinates with long-term oversight and mentoring for accountability and follow through.
  3. The subordinate may need to improve communication skills in order to bring up issues earlier or make problems more clear so that supervisors know actions is required. 

If a win-win solution isn't possible:

  1. The supervisor may need to be placed on an action plan to correct improper management practices.
  2. The supervisor may need to be released. If such an action is too difficult due to contract or other reasons, consider placing that manager on a time-bound action plan that demands results or termination/demotion.

To come to a workable solution in such cases, you must have a keen eye to see to the root of the matter. Rarely do employees complain of micro-managing supervisors unless they are, in fact, micro-managers. It's to your company's benefit to resolve this conflict as speedily as possible.

Conflict Management Strategies Used in the Workplace: Conflict between Coworkers

Conflict between coworkers is generally a situation of conflict between equals. This takes on a different tenor than conflict between a supervisor and subordinate. Such conflict can take a variety of forms such as: Clashing of personalities, jealousy, and competitiveness, just to name a few. If left untended, it can grow into a firestorm and tear your company apart, particularly if one of the employees in the conflict is well-liked. Other coworkers will quickly start picking sides. Which of the conflict strategies used in the workplace should you apply?

Again, Don’t Wait

This sort of conflict rarely ever “subsides.” Even if it seems to go away, more than likely it's disappearance means that one person capitulated and the other won. This breeds tremendous resentment in the losing party that will fester and turn into a monster later on.

Guide the Coworkers to a Reasonable, Productive Resolution

Call the two sides in for a private, one-on-one meeting to air their grievances. Be sure you can be impartial, if you can’t, have a supervisor who is known for impartiality and fairness oversee the mediation or get a professional mediator. You may need to call in other people to hear their views or obtain written statements concerning the situation to get a broader view of what’s going on.

Bring the two parties together with the mediator and have them discuss their grievances. Again, don’t allow any sort of derogatory words or controlling behavior.

After the discussion, decide your course of action and try to look for a win-win solution. Possible responses could include:

  1. One or both parties may need to be trained in “walking in the other person’s shoes.” They may need to learn how to step outside of themselves and see the offending coworker as a person with hopes, dreams and fears. This can be formal training with mentoring and oversight for follow through and accountability.
  2. Don't hesitate to place one or both parties in a conflict management course. However, you must have real follow up in order to ensure that they practice and apply what they learn.
  3. One or both parties may need to be placed on a time-bound action plan that assists them in their growth. Again, they must have mentoring & oversight to ensure follow through and accountability.

Conflict in the workplace is inevitable. Every company talks of conflict management strategies used in the workplace; however, there can be a disconnect between the theory and the reality. These strategies can be applied for any conflict in your organization. When used with diligent follow through and accountability you can turn conflict in your company into a learning opportunity and vehicle for your organization’s success. 

Seek Mediation to Manage Conflict in the Workplace

Some conflict simply can’t be resolved between the parties and demands a professional mediator. It’s okay to need a mediator. Oftentimes leaders are reluctant to enlist an outside professional for fear of appearing weak and ineffective. If you want positive outcomes, let go of the organizational pride and turn to someone who is trained in arriving at win-win outcomes.

A Qualified-with-Results Professional

When enlisting outside aid, find a mediator who is qualified and has a proven track record of success. An ongoing, entrenched conflict is not the time for a new mediator to try his wings. Further, both parties must be ready to take action on the recommendations of the mediator, and management must be committed to enforcing the recommendations.

Boost Workplace Success With Better Conflict Management Strategies

Conflict is bound to happen in the workplace. The question is: How are you going to handle it? These conflict management strategies can help you meet any tension that is building in your workplace and keep conflict at a minimum. It's a given: conflict happens, how you handle it determines your organization's success.

You may also be interested in these employee development posts:

To learn more about the benefits of employee development, contact Edge Training at 800-305-2025.

Topics: Employee Development, leadership development, Employee management, Conflict management

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