Conflicts are issues that stem from disagreement between two or among more than two individuals. Although they can happen in any setting and for a number of reasons, this article will talk about conflict management in the workplace, specifically.
Conflict management is the blanket term for strategies used to resolve those conflicts with the utmost fairness. Its goal is to reduce the negative aspects that usually arise from disagreements while increasing the odds of positive outcomes. Yes – the words “positive” and “conflict” can appear in the same phrase.
Regardless if your team comprises similar people with similar values, conflict will happen. And it should! It’s a natural part of workplace life, and it often means people have their own beliefs and want to share them with the team.
However, it’s essential that conflict managers – or mediators – know how to address and normalise complicated interpersonal situations at work. That’s because, depending on the severity of conflict, it can be potentially harmful to any organisation and the people in it.
Ideally, they should also be knowledgeable in industrial and organisational (I/O) psychology, which is a type of psychology that seeks to understand human behaviour in the workplace. Besides, better understanding human beings is a skill anyone should acquire.
When well-managed, conflict can bring positive results like critical thinking, mindset shifts, and peaceful resolutions. Managers and future managers, take note.
What is Conflict Management and Why Does It Matter?
Conflict management refers to five practices that seek to resolve disagreement or conflict, creating positive outcomes whenever possible. Such outcomes should not only spur team growth, but benefit the company as a whole.
Note that “benefitting” doesn’t always mean everyone will be happy. You’ll notice that some styles benefit all parties involved, while others benefit no one involved for the greater good of the organisation.
In the workplace setting, conflict often involves a clash of:
- Personal values
- Communication styles
- And, very often, a lack of mutual trust.
Disagreements between employees can happen any day, any time, with anyone. In some cases, third-party intervention may be necessary to ensure everyone’s needs are taken into account. This could mean a manager, Human Resources (HR), or even a legal team.
For conflict management to be successful, managers must identify it and handle the problems as they arise. Even though they might seem trivial at first.
The Five Main Conflict Management Styles
Because there are different conflict styles, there also are different conflict management styles.
The conflict management styles we’ll mention today are based upon the Thomas-Kilmann Model. These are effective conflict resolution styles that are measured along two dimensions: Assertiveness and Cooperativeness.
Assertiveness refers to a person’s concern for their own needs, while Cooperativeness refers to a person’s concern for the other team members’ needs.
These styles work as guidelines for tackling any conflict whenever it happens. Without them, it could be left unresolved or produce negative consequences instead of agreeable ones. As you know, few organisations can afford the results of drawbacks such as low employee engagement and high turnover.
There are multiple management styles for a reason: each one works for different situations. There will be simpler conflicts and more complicated ones, and the same style is unlikely to work well for both. Some of these styles might mean hurt outcomes or even terminated relationships, even if the problem is resolved.
If you’re wondering which method of conflict management to choose, career services professional Jennifer Herrity suggests that you analyse the situation in the following values: relationship and outcome.
Which is more important to solve the situation? The time you have available to resolve the conflict will usually affect which matters most.
With that in mind, here are the five conflict management styles.
Dimension: Assertive and Cooperative
Strategy: For the best outcome, this style requires enough emotional intelligence and cooperation from all parties. It involves all parties sitting down together and discussing the conflict. The solution in question should be the result of a collective and collaborative style of negotiation that reaches a fair conclusion.
What does it look like in practice? In this style of conflict management, all parties involved are able to handle the solution for themselves by talking it out. Everyone is respectful towards one another, and everyone practises active listening. When successful, this strategy can bring long-term fruitful results and significant positive impact.
Results: This is what’s known as a “win-win” solution, as both parties get what they want out of the conflict. Everyone’s desires are met, and therefore everyone is happy in the end.
When to choose it: When both the outcome of the conflict and the relationship between parties is important, and you’re not willing to sacrifice either.
Dimension: Assertive and Uncooperative
Strategy: As the name suggests, the competing conflict management style doesn’t involve any type of compromise. Instead, the mediator should be assertive and avoid giving into desires that go against conflict resolution. In this case, this is the only way to appease the situation.
What does it look like in practice? One party won’t yield until they get their desired resolution. If they believe they’re right, they might try to convince everyone of their reasoning. It’s up to the manager to make an unpopular decision and risk lowering employee engagement.
Results: In this style of conflict management, there’s no way around it: one party will eventually lose. It will resolve the issue, but some people could get their feelings hurt.
When to choose it: When positive outcomes aren’t a priority, and you’re willing to sacrifice the relationship between parties to resolve the conflict the right way.
Dimension: Unassertive and Cooperative
Strategy: The accommodating conflict management style is all about putting the needs of the other parties ahead of one’s own and letting the other party have their way. This could act as a temporary solution for a minor conflict, and often means it will be resolved with time.
What does it look like in practice? One party is unwilling to put in more effort than is required – either because they think they’re wrong, or they don’t want to waste their time. They’d rather keep the peace than start trouble for something that can be easily solved. For them, being the “losing” party may or may not be a reason for resentment.
Results: One party will win, and the other party will lose. Not everyone will be satisfied with the outcome, and the reputation of the mediator could get compromised for potentially “favouring” one opinion over another. But that’s not always the case.
When to choose it: When conflicts are small, relationships between parties must be protected, and if the outcome can be safely compromised.
Dimension: Unassertive and Uncooperative
Strategy: This conflict management style should be used when conflicts are heated. The word “avoiding” could mean a number of things, from pushing deadlines to removing team members from projects. In some cases, particularly when there’s plenty of time, it may require a “cool down” period so everyone involved can pull themselves together.
What does it look like in practice? In this style of conflict management, a few or all people involved in the conflict simply avoid the situation or treat it like it isn’t happening for the time being. They don’t necessarily ignore the situation, but rather put it off until the cool down period is over.
Results: For the most part, this type of conflict is unresolved until everyone involved can think straight. It’s typically used when there isn’t an emergency situation, but it shouldn’t be used to sweep problems under the rug. Once the necessary avoidance period is completed, the conflict should be properly managed to prevent a more serious situation.
When to choose it: When there’s enough time to deal with the conflict, relationships must be protected, and you’re not willing to sacrifice the outcome.
Dimension: Assertive and Cooperative
Strategy: Also known as the “lose-lose” style, the compromising conflict management style is all about searching for a middle ground between parties. Both parties will have to sacrifice something in order to reach a reasonable agreement, and this may result in lost relationships and bitterness. For this reason, it isn’t always an ideal conflict management style to use.
What does it look like in practice? If one party has to give up something, the other has to do the same. Yet, a happy ending doesn’t always follow. No one wants to surrender their opinions and beliefs, and therefore this style could mean no one is 100% satisfied. Yet still, they’re somewhat satisfied.
Results: In this style of conflict management, there is a fair resolution even though neither party will be fully satisfied with it. The result will create resentment between the people involved, and the expected outcome may not be successful.
When to choose it: When you’re time-strapped for a resolution, but both outcome and relationship matter.
Conflict Management Strategies To Ensure the Best Outcome
There are a few best practices for managing conflict. Here are some of them.
Always Be Aware of Conflict
Do you feel like the climate is changing in the organisation? Do you feel like conflict is bubbling up? If you do, then it’s best to address those potential signs of rising conflict immediately.
Unless it’s an avoidable situation, as mentioned above, you might be setting yourself up for bigger problems in the future.
Remember: conflict is never as bad as it could be if you ignore it. It could be festering as you read this. The sooner you tackle it, the easier it will be to resolve.
Gather All the Information Whenever Conflict Occurs
Resolving issues fairly requires analysing all sides of the problem, as well as considering everyone’s feelings while doing so. Jumping to conclusions is your enemy.
An empathetic manager will analyse all facets of the issue. They will collect every piece of information they can and actively listen to everyone’s point of view. This way, they can find out the root cause of the problem, which may not be what it seems.
For instance, their stress with their colleagues may be resulting from the way they feel about micromanagement. But you wouldn’t have known the answer, hadn’t you listened to everyone’s side of the story.
Make a Decision on How You’ll be Handling Conflicts
In some situations, it may be necessary to consult with HR before you take any further steps. In other cases, informal meetings could be the best solution for all involved.
Before you make a decision, it’s important to ask yourself:
- Could this matter become serious in any way? If it could, who should you consult with before moving forward? HR? A legal team?
- Should grievance procedures be carried out?
- Are any potentially legal issues involved? (Think through this. Many issues can be resolved without resorting to legal action.)
- Are there heated emotions at play? Is a cool-down period necessary?
While answering these questions may give you a better direction, don’t hesitate to contact your HR department for additional consulting.
For some people, knowing that their point of view has been considered is enough to compromise. So Make sure that everyone has their say, regardless of your stance on the situation.
Being fair doesn’t always mean making everyone happy, by the way. You might need to be assertive to ensure parties express their thoughts and emotions openly. And that’s fine, as long as you have set ground rules and followed them.
Agree on How to Proceed and Be Decisive
Once you manage the dispute, be decisive on how you’ll be moving forward. Ideally, you’ve evaluated the best approach and are willing to take quick action.
Even if there are hard feelings on someone’s part, know that this feeling is temporary. And if getting things back to normal means someone doesn’t get their way, so be it.
Finally, be clear. Remind everyone that you’ve taken their points of view and feelings into account and are moving forward with your decision.
Evaluate the Relationship Between the Conflicting Parties
The reason behind conflict could be a blockage caused by relationship issues. If one of the parties doesn’t believe they’re being treated fairly, their resentment for their colleague will grow stronger.
That’s why you should allow them to speak. Even though you might be tempted to intervene, You’re not there to talk on their behalf – you’re there to listen and mediate. Do they have any solutions they’d like you to carry out? Ask them to speak their mind, and you just might find common ground.
Depending on how much time you have, allow some time for reflection. This is the most important and often hardest part of the process.
Work on Preventative Strategies to Avoid Future Conflict
How could you manage conflicts better next time? Could you consider conflict management training for yourself and/or for your team? How could you, as a leader, develop your own conflict management skills?
Consider encouraging healthier workplace culture by fostering open and honest communication between employees. Psychological Safety training in the workplace is essential so everyone can safely speak their mind and contribute to quicker, healthier resolutions.
Every single conflict has a lesson in disguise. What has recent conflict taught you? Take something out of it, and you’ll have an inventory to reach into whenever similar situations develop.
So, what is conflict management?
While not always mutually agreed upon, successful conflict management results in the fair resolution of disagreements. The goal of a conflict manager should be to minimise the negative factors that result from them.
In a perfect world, all parties would always reach common ground. Still, sometimes, outcomes and relationships may be compromised. That’s why problem-solving and organisational psychology principles should be part of any manager’s skill set.
When dealing with unpredictable human beings at work, conflict management styles give managers a little more control over the situation. Although they may not be what the involved parties want, they could be what the organisation needs.