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What are Conflict Management Techniques in the Workplace ?

By Preethi Jathanna

Senior Writer for HR and Remote Work

What are conflict management techniques in the workplace ?

HRZone defines conflict management techniques in the workplace as’ the techniques and ideas designed to reduce the negative effects of conflict and enhance the positive outcomes for all parties involved.’

Picture this.

You hear raised voices. You listen a bit longer before making your way to the door. Everybody else sticks their head out, searching for the source of the commotion. A few are drawn to the noise and try to diffuse the situation, while others stay back waiting to see how it plays out.

Suddenly, everyone hears doors shutting and quickening steps in opposite directions.

Uh, oh- it looks like a respectful disagreement just escalated. And you’re going to need to know all about managing workforce conflict.

Conflicts are bound to happen in the corporate workspace. You’re either in the middle of one yourself, or witness to one between two colleagues, managers, or a colleague and manager.
While not entirely preventable, learning to manage conflict can help you recognize and mitigate workplace toxicity.

In this post, we’ll dive into this interesting subject a bit more!!

1. How to Handle Employee Conflict in the Workplace?

A conflict happens when opinions clash, and a consensus cannot be reached as to how to go forward. The biggest downside to unresolved conflict, is that it leads to tension and friction between the disagreeing parties as well as their teammates. It puts others in an awkward position, particularly when work depends on mutual cooperation and collaboration.

The first step to handle employee conflict in the workplace is to acknowledge it. Ignoring the elephant in the room and hoping it goes away on its own when people are calmer just runs the risk of lowering morale. The two common approaches are either distributive or integrative. The first, concentrates on setting positive outcomes between the members in a conflict, while the second is about reaching a decision on creating the best outcomes. Conflict resolution strategies get to the root of the problem and help you course-correct them in one of several ways; behavioral training, stress management, compromises or tradeoffs.

2. 9 Conflict Management Techniques in the Workplace

2.1. Stage the Intervention Early

Contrary to the belief that a cooling down period can clear up misunderstandings, it's better to nip conflict in the bud. Schedule the warring parties for a sit down with a mediator present. This can either be yourself, or a trusted colleague who knows the people involved and is informed of the situation. He, or she can remain objective and impartial during the discussion. The earlier you get the two people or teams together, the easier it is to understand perspectives while the memory is fresh in their minds.

2.2. Establish Discussion Guidelines

Reassert your authority as a manager before discussions commence. Remember that in the heat of the moment, both parties may not have had the opportunity to present all of their differences. Ensure you communicate discussion guidelines clearly at the start. These include using proper language (to avoid another provocation), and encouraging everyone to make eye contact as often as possible.

2.3. Listen, Then Speak Out

Make sure to give everyone involved a turn at speaking, and hear the points out attentively and fairly before you have your say . This is where your objectivity is crucial, and can even be challenged if you happen to know and/or like one team member more than the other. However, you must remember to give equal footing to everyone concerned, so that as you get an understanding of the situation, they too can more clearly see where the other party was coming from.

2.4. Focus on the Problem, not the Individual

The problem could be with a process, way of working or approach to an issue. These are the points to focus on, rather than the people. It doesn’t matter who began the argument, what matters is putting an amicable end to it by jointly reaching either a consensus, compromise or retreat from the main argument.

2.5. Sort and Name your Emotions

Naming one’s emotions helps us understand the ruling emotion, i.e. anger, or annoyance, and what’s really on our minds. It can also help us segregate logic by emotion rather than keeping them separate. Assigning a name to how you’re feeling validates it, and lets you articulate how you reached that particular stage, or what was said or done to make you feel so. Some find it helpful to maintain a feelings journal or diary so that they can keep track of their mood during different hours of the day. You can consequently recognize triggers for it, and consciously address it before it becomes the only emotion coursing through you whenever you think of your colleague or run into them later.

2.6. Assess the Damage and Consequences

By damage, we mean the psychological effects, such as reluctance to continue working with that particular person, taking it out on other uninvolved members of the team or enduring discomfort in the workplace. The consequences can include employees disengaging from projects, lowered performance or even moving on to opportunities at other companies. Bearing this in mind, apply conflict management techniques.

2.7. Reach Settlement Terms and Compromises

In order to apply conflict management techniques at the workplace, keep in mind the rules for coming to terms. These are mediation, negotiation, frankness, and openness to feedback. Work together to reach a far-sighted solution and find out how and where the warring parties are willing to compromise.

2.8. Practice Positive Behavioral Reinforcement

Reinforce good behavior with verbal recognition. This does not mean clapping and cheering for each positive step you see. Rather, lead by actions and be conscientious about how you treat the remaining members and make sure everyone, including the formerly disagreeing parties, are observing fair and ethical treatment. Acknowledge individual contributions privately and celebrate team-led efforts as a win for all. You can even try out team building exercises to mend fences and rebuild ties between workers.

2.9. Renegotiate Working Arrangements

in the worst case scenario, even your best efforts at talking things out may not suffice to resolve conflict. In which case, you will need to renegotiate schedules, workloads, and dependencies on future assignments. If it is absolutely critical to have the workers on the same project in the same team, you could try different work hours so that they interact less with each other and try to use a third party as a buffer. You can try out flex arrangements until an equilibrium is achieved.

3. 5 Types of Workplace Conflict

When a conflict arises, it usually goes back to the original problem, and why it was considered so. The types of workplace conflict are

3.1. Task/ interdependencies

This type of workplace conflict refers to two or more people working together in the same project but on different tasks. If one person is waiting for another to finish in order to start the next, a dependency arises. And if there’s a lack of coordination, or confusion regarding start and finish times, it can lead to misunderstandings, which then leads to conflict.

The solution

Clarify expectations from the start. Ensure early meetings involve all concerned members and that the work breakdown and sequence of activities are outlined before kick off. Members should be aware of who all they will be working with, along with direct and indirect dependencies. Create a medium for communication in case staff are confused about the work they are delegated, or if priorities and deadlines are moved up or pushed back.

3.2. Leadership

No two people lead a team alike. And everyone’s response to authority will differ. Often, a manager exercising his or her authority may invite temporary agreement, but future dissent. Especially if people are afraid of expressing what they truly feel, but disagree with the process or style of making decisions. While everyone may not openly oppose the person(s) they report to, sooner or later they show passive-aggressive behavior in response to leadership.

The solution

A great leader is self-aware and open to constructive criticism. As a first step, you can break the ice when you take over. A few leadership books on management will be all you need for pointers on how to be an empathetic and firm manager. Encourage your team to open up through team building games. Invite feedback via surveys and polls on a yearly or quarterly basis with questions about you that people can rate you on. Honesty can help you understand your shortcomings as a leader, and help you moderate your actions and way of speaking to a way that speaks for all.

3.3. Personality

Personality clashes are the biggest and most well-known reasons behind workplace conflicts. We won’t like everyone we meet, and it's not easy to work with someone whose personality we find disagreeable.

The solution

The best solutions are always to try to find a middle ground, compromise or withdraw. But if the conflict is based on cause for concern, such as harassment, bullying behavior and disrespectful conduct, follow protocol and issue warnings to the offending party to keep such behavior at bay. If more reports of toxic behavior come to your attention, follow through on your warning and ensure such personalities are reported. You might even have to make the difficult call of terminating contracts and blacklisting such workers.

3.4. Responsibility

This type of workplace conflict occurs when workers tend to shift the blame for shoddy work onto external factors, or someone else. They are reluctant to remain answerable for the outcomes (or lack of it).

The solution

Blame games are not conducive to a healthy work environment. If a person is unable to justify their inability to perform, the first step is to revisit goals and try to understand obstacles together. The next step is to ensure responsibilities and work delegated are clear to all present. Positive reinforcement of individual accountability can help managers in charge understand workloads, division of labor by competence and ultimately, distinguish great workers from the average.

3.5. Bias

Bias conflicts refer to showing partiality to a particular worker, or playing favorites. It leads to conflict at the workplace, because the behavior gets more obvious in the way decisions and actions are taken. If you rule in one person’s favor always, the other party tends to feel singled out and unimportant, which can be psychologically detrimental to employee well-being.

The solution

Leave bias at the door. There’s no other way for it. At work, you and everyone else has a role to play, and everyone should be pulling their own weight. Set uniformity in conduct expected, and lead by example. Staying objective with different temperaments in the same room can help you keep the issue in sight, and come up with ways to deal with it as a group.

4. What are the Five Conflict Management Strategies?

The 5 conflict management strategies are

  1. Unearthing the root cause: getting to the bottom of the issue lets you identify the triggers behind it, the emotions it sets off, and helps you come up with ways to identify and mitigate it before it snowballs out of control.
  2. team over the “I” mindset: encourage collaboration over competition. Communicate how vital each member is to a team, and emphasize on how much more can get done when workers stand united.
  3. Involving and collaborating with disagreeing parties: Engage with disagreeing parties at an agreed distance. You can try to smooth over conflict by downplaying the disagreement and recentering your focus on competence, and the skills that make both parties invaluable.
  4. Following up on discussion feedback: organize sessions after the initial talks at the table to see if things have been smoothed out. The more proactive you are in seeking out updates, the more likely you are to convey the message of wanting harmony.
  5. Catalyzing the smoothing process: a bit unconventional, but you can try getting the conflicting members to swap the earlier mentioned journals to read through. This can help them see things from a perspective or outlook different to their own, and can help them self-smooth out the conflict and repair their professional relationship.

Conflict management techniques in the workplace are more effective if you are intentional about your work culture. The important thing here is, to not let bad behavior continue unnoticed. Cultivating a culture that supports and trusts workers, creates reciprocal feelings and motivates people to cooperate without feeling like they’re being coerced into it.

What conflict management techniques at the workplace have you found most effective, and which ones would you be willing to try out down the line?

5. FAQs

5.1. What are the 5 C's of conflict management?

The 5 C's of conflict management are Communication, Collaboration, Compromise, Control, and Conflict resolution.

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