The definition of conflict is “a state of disagreement or disharmony between persons or ideas”. In the workplace this manifests itself as a situation in which the interests, needs, goals or values of the involved parties interfere with one another. Conflict can exist between individuals, departments or even organisations.
Conflict is often the result of perception. The diversity of life experiences in the workplace will influence the way situations are interpreted and can easily lead to misunderstandings. However, conflict may not always be a bad thing. When managed correctly, conflict can present opportunities for improvement with the inclusion of a broad range of experiences and ideas to solve the issues at hand. This article touches on prevention of conflict and explores five common ways to resolve conflict.
Prevention of Conflict
Conflict is always best managed before it overspills into heated exchanges of disagreement. Learning to handle conflict proactively can help improve your team morale and retain talented team members. There are a few steps you can take to help achieve this.
Get to Know your Team
This will help you form good working relationships, anticipate any conflict with the team and understand any personal problems that might be affecting them at work. It also helps you to talk to them frankly about any issues they might be having with colleagues.
Be Aware of Simmering Tensions
Individuals manage conflict in different ways. Some might quickly show their annoyance while others will appear laidback and tolerant until they finally lose their temper. Getting to know your team will help you identify which members are currently harbouring feelings of tension. Identify problems early so you can start fixing them before tensions erupt.
Acknowledge Stress Caused by Team Members
Behaviour that can create stress at work includes excessive criticism, short tempers, not sharing information, talking behind backs, avoiding unpopular tasks or poor attendance. One individual can cause disharmony within a team from any of these behaviours. Talk to your team about any concerns they might have and move to address them. Often the individual will be unaware of how their behaviour is affecting others.
Be Clear About your Expectations of Team Conduct
Spell out what behaviour is not tolerated and demonstrate positive behaviours to your team. Lead by example as you maintain your professionalism and embody the values of your organisation. Discourage any small talk behind colleague’s backs and try to treat everyone with equal importance.
Office politics and gossip are frequent sources for misunderstanding and tension. Maintain objectivity and resist the urge to join in. You should aim to create an environment which is open, respectful, kind, fair and consistent. If the gossip becomes malicious, you should intervene and clearly explain that this behaviour is unacceptable.
Five Ways to Manage Conflict
Sometimes conflict cannot be avoided and it will rear its head. In these instances there are multiple methods you can use to manage conflict, but they can be broadly broken down into five different stategies. Each strategy brings its own unique characteristics and will provide benefits in different ways. Each method is described below:
Collaboration / Problem Solving / Confronting
This is both the most effective way for dealing with conflict but also the most difficult way of managing it. It requires time, trust and commitment on all sides to reach a resolution which satisfies the concerns of both parties. The involved parties must come forward to discuss the problem with an open mind and they must be willing to empathise and understand the situation from the other’s perspective. The aim is to find the best alternative or solution for the team as a whole. It helps to solve the actual problem and reinforces trust and respect for future collaboration.
Result: Win & Win Situation
Best Used When:
- All parties are willing to investigate alternative solutions together that they may not necessarily have thought of on their own.
- Trying to get to the source of problems that have continued for a long time.
- Upholding objectives that cannot be compromised on any side.
- A long-term relationship is important and high levels of trust are present.
- Addressing the interests of multiple stakeholders from different backgrounds.
Compromise / Reconciling
This approach occurs when common ground is identified, and the middle path is taken. Here each party will give up something in order to reach a resolution where they win some of what they desire. This approach uses negotiation and flexibility to maintain the current relationship. It usually produces a temporary relief where both parties may not be fully satisfied with the situation. It is not a long-lasting solution and does not contribute to future trust.
Result: Win/Lose & Win/Lose Situation
Best Used To:
- Achieve an agreement when all parties have equal power.
- Reach a temporary resolution in more complicated matters.
- Reach a quick solution for important issues.
- Achieve a settlement when the involved parties have not yet developed a high level of mutual trust.
Avoidance / Withdrawing
Here one party may withdraw from the conflict and allow the other perspective to continue. The result is neither party taking action to address the issues involved and the conflict will remain unresolved. The position of the withdrawing party may be adversely affected but it will provide time to focus on more urgent issues at hand or to prepare and collect more information before further action.
Result: Lose & Lose Situation
Best Used When:
- All parties feel the issue is minor and will be resolved in time without any fuss.
- The parties need a chance to cool down and spend time apart.
- More time is needed before thinking about dealing with the issues.
- Others are able to resolve the conflict more effectively than the parties concerned.
- Parties are unable to handle the conflict or must deal with hostility.
- Dealing with the situation will be damaging to all involved parties.
Competing / Forcing
Here one party wins the conflict through dominance and power; they push their views at the expense of the other party involved. It is often destructive for team working and may damage long-term relationships. It also reduces the ability to use the any positive ideas from the other party.
Result: Win & Lose Situation
Best Used When:
- When all other methods have been tried (and failed).
- In emergency situations when quick, immediate and decisive action needed.
- In situations where unpopular changes need to be applied and discussion is not appropriate.
- When you need to stand up for your own rights, resist aggression or pressure.
Smoothing / Accommodation
This is approach works in situations where there is growing apprehension and distrust of the other party involved. It occurs where one of the parties takes a leading role and attempts to smooth relations rather than prioritising their concerns. They will emphasise points of agreement and play down disagreements. Often one party will be willing to forfeit their position. This willingness to accommodate can be taken advantage of in future interactions and it can make it difficult to reach win-win solutions in the future.
Result: Lose & Win Situation
Best Used When:
- One party wishes to indicate a degree of fairness.
- People wish to encourage others to express their own opinion.
- The issue or problem is more important to the other party.
- It is more important to safeguard the relationship rather than argue about the issue.