Nothing is more of a threat to a healthy work environment than the toxicity of unresolved conflict. The unaddressed issue becomes the underlying focus of those who know about it, effectively shifting the focus from productivity to gossip. Conflict is often based on hurt feelings or pride, and it doesn’t typically go away on its own.
The ability to resolve conflict is key to effective leadership.
Whether the point of contention is between two members of the same team, an employee and third party supplier or contractor, or any other stakeholder in the company, it needs to be resolved swiftly and with genuine follow-through.
If you find yourself in the position of needing to resolve a conflict that’s wreaking havoc on your team, we’ve got the life preserver you need to keep you afloat as you navigate the white-capped waters of conflict resolution.
What Conflict Looks Like in the Workplace
As a leader in the workplace, you’ll need a procedure in place for resolving conflicts.
There is no person on the planet who has journeyed through life unscathed by conflict. Conflicts arise for any number of reasons, that can include:
• Self-serving behavior
Conflicts arise when people make decisions that serve their own interests (promotion at work, financial gain, etc.) rather than making a decision that serves everyone on the team equally.
Being overconfident about a decision can lead to inflated levels of confidence that don’t match what can be realistically delivered. Ego is the one to blame here, so being mindful of what can reasonably be offered will curb the expectation for an outcome that might still be great but doesn’t meet the promise initially made.
Think about politicians on the campaign trail. Would we love to see them keep every promise they make? Absolutely – it’s why we take the risk when we give them our vote. And what happens when they don’t deliver? We get upset. We see them as failures. We see our country as doomed. Then everyone is hurt either because they didn’t get what was promised or they were caught out for overcommitting. This happens to all of us, no matter the arena. Commitment creates expectation. Lack of follow-through creates conflict.
Conflict Resolution Strategies – How Effective Leaders Build a Cooperative Culture
Conflict resolution is the act of solving a problem with a result that satisfies all parties involved.
Among CEOs surveyed in a Stanford Graduate School of Business study, participants indicated that they would benefit from training in conflict resolution. If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance that you will need skills in conflict resolution sooner or later. Trainings are highly encouraged, but until then get familiar with this comprehensive list of strategies to consider when mediating a conflict within your company.
• Welcome healthy disagreement
Begin by understanding that not everyone will see eye to eye on every single topic. Differing perspectives can spur creativity when the input is balanced with respect. This is very different from conflict that starts with an action or comment then morphs into a beast of emotion that detracts from the team’s productivity.
• Preempt unnecessary conflict
To avoid unnecessary conflict, support an environment of open communication. The more team members talk, the easier it becomes for everyone to stay on the same page and work toward the same goal.
• Familiarize yourself with different approaches
No two personalities are exactly the same, so no two people can be handled the exact same way. How one person handles conflict might differ from how another person deals with it due to varying levels of sensitivity, trauma backgrounds, and any other number of factors that impact our emotional and mental health.
Mental health awareness is developing every day, so as a leader, it is important to keep up to date on strategies to resolve conflict among the many personalities on your team.
• Request boundaries
Akin to the importance of knowing all of the different personality types on your team is the importance of knowing each person’s boundaries. Where some people are comfortable with relaxed boundaries and jokes that teeter on the edge of impropriety, others wish to keep relationships among colleagues strictly professional and never discuss details beyond the parameters of the workspace. It is your job as a leader to identify each person’s boundaries and create a space where each stakeholder feels comfortable and confident in the realm of teamwork and productivity.
• Resolve emotions before disputes
Conflicts escalate because emotions erupt and skew our judgment. It is quite the feat to separate the head from the heart when conflict occurs. Heightening the discomfort of conflict in the workplace is the understanding that this should not be happening and has the potential to negatively impact years of hard work and your source of livelihood. Before entering mediation, all parties should grasp that emotions worsen the discussion, thus keeping resolution difficult to reach. Furthermore, speech patterns and body language communicate much more than you might mean for them to, and distinguish the fear that’s at the root of the conflict and treat it like an object separate from your heart. Address it with facts and keep the conversation forward-thinking.
• Address tension when it arises and act quickly
In the moment, it might seem easier to ignore the tension or make a strange, knowing look at a work-friend when the silence gets awkward, and everyone wonders how to move on. It might be healthy to sidestep the conflict for the moment to give emotions a chance to settle before tackling the issue, but ignoring it altogether is detrimental to trust and morale. Keep conflict resolution timely so it doesn’t infect the team’s productivity and comradery.
Negotiation… Mediation… Arbitration… Litigation – What’s the Real Difference?
Imbalance creates conflict. Being a team lead means you are constantly negotiating deals of finance, time, and productivity. To avoid conflict, there should be a mutual goal of meeting the interests of each involved party.
Mediation is a source of resolution as opposed to a cause, but it’s worth mentioning in this list, as something like mediation is only prompted when conflict cannot be amicably resolved. In times when conflict has escalated beyond the point of help from within the company, a third-party mediator will be hired to guide all parties toward resolution.
Arbitration is one of the exact reasons we want to end conflict as quickly and thoroughly as possible. In arbitration, the conflict is presented before a neutral third party who serves as a judge.
If you want to avoid arbitration, you definitely want to avoid litigation. Litigation differs from arbitration in that both parties at conflict will be represented by attorneys. Their case will be presented before a judge and jury.
The Basic Conflict Resolution Skills Every Organizational Leader Needs
How we navigate conflict resolution can be just as important as the resolution itself. Keeping personality type and boundaries in mind, these are the skills required of you, the leader and mediator, to resolve conflicts. You’ll notice that some of these skills are similar to aforementioned strategies, and with good reason: They work.
Listen to how the other person is speaking. Phrase your sentences in the same way to keep the tone neutral. Repeat what they have said to you in order to clarify your understanding. Begin by saying, “What I’m hearing you say is . . .” While you are listening, take in what is being told to you. You will be given a chance to speak as well, so listen to the other person with your full attention without thinking about what you’re going to say in rebuttal.
Conflict exposes us to vulnerabilities which is why it is an automatic defense to close ourselves off from the source of tension rather than face it head-on. Keeping an open line of communication after a conflict assures everyone is heard and helps to avoid similar problems in the future.
Rather than place blame for the issue, lean back on the active listening skills to help you see the incident from one another’s perspective.
A Level Head
Though it is imperative to resolve the conflict before it escalates into a bigger deal, it can be wise to take a step back for a minute in order to let all parties of interest gather their thoughts and reel in any high emotions. Maintaining a level-headed, methodical approach will help resolve the conflict swiftly and in a way that allows everyone to (hopefully) reach a resolution that pleases everyone.
If conflict arises because one person is trying to usurp the opinions or hard work of others, then it’s resolution should be the opposite – getting everyone to work toward a common goal. Keep the lines of communication free-flowing so everyone has a chance to be heard and input is equal among stakeholders. Follow through with this step time and again to assure success.
Readers are Leaders!
There’s no denying that having a good mentor is essential to growth in a leadership role. This includes people we know in real life as well as experts in leadership who have written books to see us through even the toughest situations among our teams. Here are a few titles to hunker down with in preparation.
- The Anatomy of Peace, Fourth Edition: Resolving the Heart of Conflict
By The Arbinger Institute
- Powerful Phrases for Dealing with Difficult People: Over 325 Ready-to-Use Words and Phrases for Working with Challenging Personalities
By Renee Evenson
- The Humble Inquiry, Second Edition: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling
By Edgar H. Shein, Peter A. Shein
- The Outward Mindset: Seeing Beyond Ourselves
By The Arbinger Institute
- Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In
By Roger Fisher, William L. Ury, Bruce Patton
Basic Conflict Resolution Steps
Every leader will place their own spin on managing conflict, but the steps to resolution will essentially look the same…
1. Talk it out
Set aside a time to meet with the person/people involved in the conflict. Arrange to meet in a place that will be free from distraction and interruption.
Not everybody feels comfortable talking about areas of conflict. It’s safe to say most people would rather pretend the issue doesn’t exist and believe that it will resolve itself in time. The reality is, though, that this leads the offended party (or parties) to arrive at their own conclusions, effectively making the conflict worse.
To be an effective leader skilled in conflict resolution, it is critical to get comfortable with facing ugly truths.
2. Focus on the facts
Keep the conversation fact-focused. Finding a path toward peace means keeping emotions out of the conversation to refrain from escalating the conflict.
Begin sentences with, “When this happens . . .” rather than “When you do this . . .” Be specific – describe exact examples that cause the conflict rather than generalizing. People can’t change what they don’t specifically know they’ve done to be hurtful.
Be an active listener, focused on hearing what the other person is communicating. Center your attention on what is being told to you instead of preparing to react. Refrain from interrupting. When the other person is finished speaking, repeat back to them what you heard. For example: “What I’m hearing you say is . . .” Ask clarifying questions.
4. Pinpoint where the parties agree and disagree
After each party has been heard on their own, bring everyone together to discuss their differences in a neutral environment. This is a time dedicated to brainstorming resolutions, active listening, and remaining open to differing perspectives. The goal is to arrive at a common understanding of the conflict, the role each person plays in the conflict, and what a resolution might look like.
To identify the root of the issue, each involved party must first be given their own time to be heard by the mediator. As you listen to each party, work to figure out how each party understands the situation, what needs to be met, and what each party sees as an appropriate resolution. When meeting with the individual parties, assure them that you remain neutral as the mediator and have no bias in one direction or the other.
Summarize points of agreement and disagreement. Check that both parties agree on these points. Change your assessment until you both see eye to eye on the points of agreement and disagreement.
5. Make a plan
Arrange times to check-in with all involved parties to assure everyone is feeling good about the progress.
The hope is that when you arrive at this point in conflict resolution, all involved parties will have an understanding of the other’s perspective. If there is understanding of the opposing party’s perspective, resolution can be achieved through open dialogue. If this does not happen organically, you will need to step in to lay the foundation for common ground then work together to create a plan.
6. Follow through
Keep having conversations until all points of contention have been worked through. Maintain a collaborative tone during discussion. Remember, the goal is to work through this together.
Conflict doesn’t go away overnight, even when mediation has occurred. It is important for a leader who has acted as a mediator to continue to check in with all involved parties to assess how they feel about the progress being made. If things are not going as agreed upon, it’s time to reconvene and reassess.
7, Build upon the success
Seek opportunities to acknowledge progress. Compliment noticeable changes. Encourage each party to complement one another on their successes. In time, scheduled discussions focused on conflict resolution will become natural, even friendly, conversations.
Conflict Resolution Training
Though training, business leaders can learn how to negotiate solutions that not only benefit involved parties directly, but also serve the best interest of the company.
Courses you can expect to take while in conflict resolution training include:
Conflict Resolution Techniques – The 5 Cs of Conflict Resolution
Entrepreneur Magazine has coined the conflict resolution techniques as The 5 Cs. Easy to remember and call upon during (hopefully rare) times when conflict resolution is needed. These are very close to the techniques and strategies named throughout this FAQ guide, but this time with a fresh spin to help you recall these tools in a moment’s notice. The Five Cs are:
1 – Carefully Listen – Be an active listener. Emphasis on the listening.
2 – Consider the Situation Thoughtfully – Then, put in the effort to truly see a situation from the perspective of your team members and other stakeholders. Empathy is the key to success.
When you can see from their perspective, you gain new insight into how to better serve your team and your customers.
You don’t have to agree with them but understanding them will help lead to peaceful collaboration.
3 – Calmly Discuss Conflicting Perspectives – How we react to a conflict can worsen the situation. Even if you don’t feel calm on the inside, acting like you’re calm will benefit everyone involved.
4 – Conscientiously Look at the Facts – Keep your head and your heart separate. Even though facts are what is true about a situation, emotions can get in the way and skew the perspective. This leads to further misunderstanding, and even worse, lets pride get in the way of accepting when we might have overstepped a boundary or disrespected a colleague in some way.
5 – Cooperatively Work Together – When the first four C’s go well the result is a cooperative team effort that inevitably leads to success.
Various Conflict Resolution Styles for Different Personality Types
We’ve spent a lot of time talking about strategies, skills, and techniques for navigating conflict resolution, but not everyone is going to deliver these things the same way.
Just as our teams are made of diverse personalities, so are managers.
Some of us are still figuring out how we want to handle conflict resolution while others are well-versed in the practice of finding peace among teams. No matter what brings you here today, there are styles to consider for effective conflict resolution. Here are some to emulate and a couple to avoid.
According to the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument, the five major styles of conflict resolution are:
Conflict Resolution Quotes – Words to Live and Lead By
People have been disagreeing since the beginning of time – whether it’s what beverage to pair with dinner or what territory rightfully belongs to a certain country. Sometimes it feels like there are more ways to handle conflict than there are ways to avoid it from happening in the first place. The point is: It’s inevitable. How you handle it as a team lead is entirely up to you (no pressure, right?). The following are quotes to recall in times of stress and intense conflict.
Do not think of knocking out another person’s brains because he differs in opinion from you. It would be as rational to knock yourself on the head because you differ from yourself ten years ago.
— Horace Mann
All conflict can be traced back to someone’s feelings getting hurt, don’t you think?
— Liane Moriarty, Big Little Lies
Did it ever occur to you, that there is no conflict of interests among men, neither in business nor in trade nor in their most personal desires – if they omit the irrational from their view of the possible and destruction from their view of the practical?
– Ayn Rand
Peace is better than war, because conflict resolutions can be made without a wastage of life and resources.
— Gugu Mona
You can’t win an argument. You can’t because if you lose it, you lose it; and if you win it, you lose it.
– Dale Carnegie
When conflict becomes a win-lose contest in our minds, we immediately try to win.
— Thomas Crum
Speak when you are angry and you will make the best speech you will ever regret.
— Ambrose Bierce
Peace is not the absence of conflict, but the ability to cope with it.
— Mahatma Gandhi
Conflict can destroy a team, which hasn’t spent time learning to deal with it.
– Thomas Isgar
Whenever you’re in conflict with someone, there is one factor that can make the difference between damaging your relationship and deepening it. That factor is attitude.
— William James
Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak. Courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.
— Winston Churchill