Conflict Resolution in the Workplace Starts With Confident Leadership

Effective conflict resolution is a hallmark of leadership in the workplace.

Conflict is a part of everyday life—it can be a natural byproduct of the work process as teams strive to fulfill business goals and meet client needs. Conflict resolution in the workplace is a critical indicator of your ability to lead your staff and support a productive, safe, and caring work environment. It can be a daunting task to intervene when seemingly minor disagreements or differing work styles escalate into conflict between employees. But experts agree that taking the time to manage workplace conflict head-on is always worth it—conflicts left unresolved can escalate into crisis situations.
 
If you’re faced with mediating a conflict between staff, avoiding it or minimizing it only makes the situation worse. Why? Because once a conflict has escalated beyond the involved parties’ ability to work it out themselves, the residual toxicity negatively impacts the staff surrounding them, and the function of the organization. Confidently facilitating resolution between those parties not only re-directs the function of the workplace back to balance, but it restores faith across staff that disputes can be handled with positivity and professionalism, which is critical to a safe and caring work environment.
 
If you’re putting off dealing with a conflict in your workplace, ask yourself what you stand to lose if you don’t own this critical task as a leader. Would you rather lay the foundation for further escalation and hostility, or would you like to be a force for meaningful culture change and bring your staff to a heightened level of teamwork and professionalism? Acknowledge conflicts honestly when you observe them, and listen to your staff when they bring conflicts to your attention that they’re unable to resolve on their own.
 
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Research the conflict as soon as you’ve been made aware of it.

Again, this starts with unbiased listening. Try to stay rationally detached as you gather facts, and don’t weigh in with an opinion or reaction. You want to facilitate, rather than dictate, a meaningful dialogue about the conflict at hand so that the individuals involved in the conflict own the process of resolving it.
 
Not all conflicts that escalate are interpersonal—they might be rooted in a project that’s difficult to reach a consensus on, like a budget or a schedule. It could also be a product of poor change management—restructuring often triggers professional conflicts because internal friction can distract staff from the bigger vision that sparked the staffing changes to begin with. That’s why it’s so critical to gather as much information as you can about what’s driving the dispute. You’ll need to facilitate a resolution that not only reunifies teammates, but moves the workplace agenda forward with a clear and practical strategy.
 
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Talk to the parties involved together, not separately.

While it may seem that talking to the parties involved individually is the best way to calmly gather each person’s side of the story, it can reduce an individual’s ability to be objective. It’s important to acknowledge the frustrations and stress that people are feeling as a result of conflict, but keep the emphasis on respect, establishing from the get-go that the desired outcome of any dialogue about the conflict is its resolution.
 
When it comes to conflict resolution at work, the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) recommends that any group discussion start by establishing ground rules for the meeting—how people can take turns speaking, for example, and an agreement that personal attacks won’t be tolerated. CPI’s William Badzmierowski offers these sample ground rules for a collective conflict resolution:
  • I will treat everyone respectfully.
  • I will accept differences of opinion, and try to learn from the views of others.
  • I will avoid behavior that is unprofessional or disruptive to this process.
  • I will work to create a safe and respectful environment.
  • I will cooperate, not compete.
  • I will respect the confidentiality of internal and external customers.
 
Each person involved should get an equal opportunity to share their perspective of the conflict in their own words—and there should be time given to recap what’s been shared, both to confirm the viewpoints shared and acknowledge that aggrieved parties have been heard. (SHRM also details when you should involve HR, or other outside professionals, in your conflict management process.)
 
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Avoid courtroom dynamics—determine the resolution as a team.

If you want to bring a conflict to a resolution that has lasting positive benefit to all involved, you may need to shift your paradigm. While you may feel tempted to be a judge and jury in the face of two parties presenting their respective cases, conflict resolution shouldn’t be just about finding common ground but paving a new path forward on it.
 
Dr. Stephen Covey writes, “When people can’t compromise, it can be a good thing. Because suddenly the way might be open to a third alternative. In any conflict, the first alternative is my way, and the second alternative is your way. The usual outcomes are either a war or a compromise. Compromise stops the fight—but without breaking through to amazing new results. A third alternative is that kind of breakthrough.” (You can read more about this concept in his book.)
 
Exploring the possibility that there’s a solution that neither party has yet considered is a powerful way to break gridlock and bring opponents together to define a solution that truly heals instead of simply patching over. A positive outcome might not be aligned with either person’s viewpoint—it may exist beyond it. Your job as the facilitator of conflict resolution is to foster the collaboration necessary to get to that outcome.
 
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When you settle on a solution, commit to a plan of action, and maintain accountability.

UC Berkeley’s human resources guide to conflict resolution recommends that you get “real” buy-in once a solution is reached, because “total silence may be a sign of passive resistance.” Don’t leave the table until everybody has truly committed to the course of action prescribed for resolution, until you’ve agreed how you’ll follow up to make sure the solution has been implemented effectively, and until you’ve clarified what actions will be taken if parties don’t follow through on their agreements.
 
Close any confliction resolution on the same note with which you opened it—one of respect, professionalism, and good faith. It goes a long way for both parties to apologize and shake hands, but don’t try to force camaraderie where it might not organically exist. Keep the emphasis on the bigger picture—we all want to succeed, and it’s inevitable that at times we’ll disagree. Personality types, generational differences, working styles, structural dynamics, work environment—these can all fuel conflict, but ultimately a shared commitment to professionalism and success can be something that unites us.
 
Creating a safe and caring work environment is a team effort—and effective conflict resolution in your work environment is a sign that the leadership is in place to sustain such an environment and help it to thrive. Don’t be afraid to face conflict head on—embrace this key leadership opportunity to make your team stronger and more productive.
 
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