How do I deal with conflict in the workplace?
Workplace behaviour can drastically impact performance, increase employee turnover, and affect customer relationships. Even small microaggressions can leave employees feeling disrespected, belittled and ignored, creating lasting damage to organisations from large corporates to small businesses.
What are the main types of workplace conflict?
Task Conflict: Most disputes that fall under this category involve issues related to employee roles and responsibilities – the tasks required of them. Conflict can arise over the distribution of labour, allocation of resources, management of expectations (think unrealistic timelines) and finally, definition and comprehension of tasks required.
Relationship Conflict: This type of conflict between colleagues is usually attributed to differences in personality style but can extend to entire teams and departments. The challenge with this form of conflict in the workplace is that it may have nothing to do with work. Common in these disputes is a breakdown of communication between parties. There are multiple negative outcomes resulting from this form this form of conflict, and it is one of the most challenging to manage, not in the least because many people find it difficult to recognise and manage aspects of their own personality, but also because it is usually a highly emotional form of conflict.
Values Conflict: Arising from differences in identities and values spanning religion, politics, cultural diversity, ethnicity, gender identity and fundamental beliefs. This form of workplace conflict takes hold when people bring their intrinsic values into the workplace. Conflict may arise between colleagues or surface in many employees resulting from company behaviour that may not align with employees’ values system. An example may be a tech company with thousands of employees all over the world affronted by the company’s algorithm promoting misinformation or a company’s stance over issues such as climate change or inclusivity. Values-based conflicts in the workplace often reflect the company’s culture and prioritisation and enforcement of company values.
Strategies to manage conflict in the workplace
Without managers or business owners having effective conflict resolution skills, the business model will not reach its full potential – managing conflict is simply an essential part of any workplace. While the categories (task, relationship, and values) we’ve explored are unique in the types of disputes that arise, there are some basic strategies that can be applied to any conflict to resolve the dispute as quickly and effectively as possible.
A summary of steps to resolve workplace conflict based on facilitated discussion:
Communicate: Create a safe, open and confidential environment to talk individually to the people in conflict enabling them to share their side of the story. During this discussion, ask each party separately, what outcome they are seeking as a means of resolving the conflict.
Listen: Remember, people need to feel seen, and they need to be heard. People also need to be able to express their emotions (within reason). This is also central to conflict resolution, as feelings need to be expressed before you can move to a practical, future-focused dialogue.
Focus on the events: Ask questions, including asking for examples of the conflict to help you better understand what exactly is happening.
Acknowledge that the conflict exists: This is an important step towards resolution. If people are made to think ‘it’s all in your head’ they are impacted by a microaggression known as gaslighting – a strategy to entice self-doubt.
Define the conflict: The impact of the conflict may be a total breakdown in communication between two employees, but it may have been caused by a strong difference in personality.
Find common ground: This may be as simple as both employees wanting to stay in their jobs. Other commonalities may be wanting a resolution to the conflict, or to reduce the impact of the conflict on the team’s wellbeing. Acknowledging common ground is a first step to resolution because it demonstrates that parties can at least agree on some things.
Explore options: Together with the parties in conflict, explore possible options towards resolution. Some of these will not be realistic, and most will certainly involve compromise – but it’s important that both parties participate with the idea to resolve the issue. Included in the option phase can be the outcome if nothing changes.
Evolve options into a negotiation: Working on the premise that there are things both parties can act on that will diffuse the dispute and enable the parties to perform their tasks and do their jobs without ongoing conflict.
Write up an agreement: Help parties come to an agreed-to set of terms relating to their working relationship, then put it in writing.
Schedule a follow-up: Agree on a timeframe to follow-up separately with both parties in a confidential session.
Managing conflict in the workplace is not easy. It’s a skill requiring patience, that must be learned
The outlined process above is no silver bullet. Conflicts in the workplace vary in complexity and nature and their resolution requires a skilled communicator who can remain neutral throughout the process. The parties will ideally bring an open mind to the idea of resolving their conflict, with the understanding that doing so will improve their lives immeasurably.
And finally, if you feel despite your best efforts, the resolution of this workplace dispute extends beyond your skillset and experience, reach out to a mediator with the required expertise to facilitate the dispute. Sometimes it’s just easier and more effective deferring to an expert.
To help you prepare for mediation, we have created a library of helpful information including checklists, tips and added detail around the process of mediation. For useful and relevant information you can download for free, we encourage you to visit our resources page.
Often the idea of dealing with conflict leaves us anxious, frightened and sometimes, angry. Those powerful emotions can put us at considerable disadvantage before we’ve even started to deal with the conflict in front of us.
If not resolved, problematic communication can become a weapon of mass destruction on the inside and outside of the business.
While more commonly used to assist people in a relationship move through their conflict or move on in life, mediation also provides an excellent process for prospective LGBTQ+ parents, donors and caregivers to identify and explore issues they may need to consider and discuss in planning their Rainbow family.
The thought of entering into mediation as a way to address conflict - whether it’s a family, work or a commercial matter - can be terrifying for a lot of people. Dread doesn’t even begin to explain it. As mediators, some of the best advice we can give, is to be prepared. And sometimes, that involves seeking the advice of specialists.
Mediation works because it replaces blame and punishment with problem-solving. And the effects of this approach can produce real and lasting behavioural change (rather than the antiquated notion of being caught and punished in an ongoing cycle that can continue into adulthood).