With so many organizations encouraging dynamic collaboration, some degree of conflict is inevitable. In some cases, disagreements arise over what goals should be pursued or who is accountable for specific work; in other situations, they are the result of a struggle over a lack of resources (or a perceived lack of them). Regardless of the cause, conflict has the potential to cause serious problems if it’s not managed effectively.
Fortunately, conflict also represents an opportunity. Managed effectively, conflict can help break through counterproductive ways of thinking, stimulate creativity and innovation, and ultimately bring people closer together. Leaders play an important role in managing conflict in the workplace and their actions will often determine whether the conflict led to a positive or negative experience.
5 Tips for Conflict Resolution
1. Don’t Run From Conflict
If there’s one certainty about resolving team conflict, it’s that ignoring it will only lead to worse outcomes. Conflict in the workplace is unavoidable and tends to escalate if it’s not managed quickly and effectively. While conflict itself can be highly beneficial, unresolved conflict can have very negative effects on an organization. Rising tensions can reduce productivity, stifle creative collaboration, and create barriers to communication. In a worst-case scenario, leaders who can’t (or won’t) deal with conflict could see their best talent leave to find a better work environment.
Rather than avoiding conflicts, many leaders find it far more effective to actually seek out potential sources of conflict and intervene proactively before a situation develops. Taking a proactive stance on conflict resolution in the workplace forces people to identify and resolve natural tensions that could lead to problems in the future. However, even the most proactive measures will not be able to prevent conflict, so it’s still important to manage these differences quickly, fairly, and decisively when they do occur.
2. Understand Everyone’s Position
No conflict will reach a positive resolution unless the people involved understand each other’s motivations and reasoning. For any meaningful discussion to take place, both sides must have a chance to explain what issues are important to them and why. This process not only helps people to be heard and valued, it also creates the opportunity to identify common ground and points of interdependence that might serve as a starting point for resolving team conflict.
Active listening skills, such as demonstrating empathy, asking relevant questions, and providing balanced responses, are tremendously valuable here. Simply allowing someone to explain their position in full, without interruptions, helps establish a mutual respect that allows both sides to work toward positive solutions as part of a healthy conflict resolution.
3. View Conflict as a Growth Opportunity
Conflict itself is neither inherently good nor bad. Properly managed, it can lead to very productive outcomes and serve as an opportunity for people to grow, both professionally and personally. Strong, long-term relationships are often formed in the aftermath of a tense, but constructively resolved conflict. In these instances, participants often come to see that their disagreements arise from a mutual desire to help the organization achieve its goals.
Oftentimes, conflicts develop because there is a fundamental problem that needs to be addressed. Maybe a team is not communicating well or a leader is not providing clear direction for their team members. Properly managed, these situations are an opportunity to fix long-term problems that affect performance.
Healthy debates over processes and strategies can also stimulate greater innovation and learning in ways that might not have been possible without conflict. Researchers have consistently found that the most effective teams are those in which dissent is tolerated or even encouraged. Diversity of opinion stimulates creativity in a group context, and prevents the dangerous influence of stagnant “groupthink” from taking hold.
4. Involve the Participants in the Solution
In the aftermath of a heated conflict, no one likes having a decision imposed upon them. The most successful resolutions are those the participants play a role in shaping. Rather than being forced to accept a solution, both sides of the conflict have a chance to collaborate, accommodate, and compromise. Even in the event that a win/win solution is not possible, involving both sides in a productive discussion that addresses valid concerns can go a long way towards identifying a compromise that works for everyone and secures genuine buy-in.
It’s important that the participants share their respective positions to one another directly. Even if the meeting must be mediated by a third party, they must have the opportunity to speak and be heard. By involving both sides in actively managing conflict in the workplace, they have the opportunity to understand and, ideally, empathize with one another’s positions. They may continue to disagree about the ideal outcome, but a discussion based upon mutual respect is far more likely to produce a healthy conflict resolution.
No matter the source of the conflict, poor communication is bound to undermine trust and make things worse. If the participants can’t speak to one another directly, they tend to drag the people around them into the conflict and effectively force them to take sides. A dispute between individuals, then, can very quickly devolve into an emotionally charged conflict between entire teams or departments. When both sides are encouraged to resolve their disagreements together, they might very well discover that much of the dispute is based on faulty assumptions that could have been easily dispelled with better communication.
5. Stay Calm and Focus on the Problem
Conflicts have the potential to become heated very quickly. Anger and resentment can wind up driving decisions, especially when the stakes are high and communication is poor. It’s easy to become fixated upon these negative emotions. When this happens, conflict becomes more about assigning blame or “winning” an argument than about actually identifying the source of a problem and developing solutions. Healthy conflict resolution focuses on the actual problems at hand, not the people or situations surrounding them.
In order to avoid making conflicts about personal disagreements, the emphasis needs to be on the specific issues involved in the dispute. One way to diffuse an emotional situation is to shift the focus from the past (“What went wrong?” or “Who made a mistake?”) to the future (“How can we avoid this problem next time?”). This clears the table for collaboration that works toward a mutually beneficial outcome. When the time comes to revisit the source of the dispute to ensure it doesn’t occur again, this discussion will be far more productive without the pressure of an immediate problem.
Managing conflict in the workplace is a difficult task, but when handled quickly and directly, good leaders can help to ensure that it’s resolved in a positive fashion that’s both acceptable and beneficial to all parties involved. By approaching conflict as a normal and inevitable feature of any organization, it’s possible to prevent toxic disagreements that can cripple an organization from taking root.