Conflict in our workplace is normal and not necessarily a bad thing. We all have different values, perceptions, agendas and goals which can lead to conflict with another person. As long as the conflict is effectively resolved, it can lead to personal and professional growth. On the positive side, you can often resolve many of the problems that the conflict brought to the surface, and gain many benefits that you might not have expected, such as.
- Improved self-knowledge: Conflict forces people to reflect and examine their own behaviour, perceptions,values and goals.
- Increased understanding: Conflict expands people’s understanding and awareness of the situation. This further provides skills in how they can achieve their goals or meet their needs without undermining those of other people.
- Increased group cohesion: Team members can develop stronger mutual respect and appreciation of other team members skills, perceptions, needs and goals.
What is important is that the conflict is managed effectively and failure to do so can lead to very damaging outcomes. Teamwork breaks down, talent and ideas are wasted as people disengage from their work and the working environment can rapidly descend to negativity and vicious recrimination. When emotions are high, resolution is arduous as neither party are likely to listen objectively to the other person. People in conflict will take ‘positions’, and look to prove they are right and may not be willing to take the other point of view into consideration. Effective managers will stop this downward spiral as soon as practical to ensure their teams or organisation are working effectively.
The process of conflict resolution
An important first step is to stabilise the situation and bring the conflicting parties at least to the stage of wanting to resolve their differences. During this stage, acknowledgement, validating and empathising the emotional states is crucial to successful resolution. Key steps are.
- Managing the emotional states of the parties involved.
- Defining the differences.
- Look for common interest and use them as guides for resolution.
- Acknowledge and validate emotional states.
- Reaching solutions where all parties believe they have gained.
A Manager skilled in conflict resolution will understand that there are different conflict styles. In the 1970′s Kenneth and Ralph Kilmann identified five main styles of dealing with conflict that differ in their degrees of cooperativeness and assertiveness. People have different personalities and also have a preferred conflict resolution style. A skilled practitioner will know what style, or styles will be most useful in different situations. The conflict styles are.
- Competitive: People tend to take a firm stand and know what they want. They usually operate from a position of power and draw on things like rank, expertise or persuasive ability. This style is useful when decisions need to be made fast however it can leave people feeling bruised, unsatisfied and resentful.
- Collaborative: This style tries to meet the needs of all parties involved. These people cooperate and acknowledge that everyone is important and is useful when you need to bring together various viewpoints to get the best solution.
- Compromising: This style tries to find a solution that will at least partially satisfy everyone and everyone is expected to give something up. Compromise is helpful when the cost of conflict exceeds the cost of losing ground, when opponents are of equal strength or when there is a deadline to meet.
- Accommodating: This style indicates a willingness to meet the needs of others at the expense of the person’s own needs. Accommodation is appropriate when the issues matter more to the other party, when resolution is more important than winning or when you want to be in a position to collect on the ‘favour’ later.
- Avoiding: This style seeks to avoid to conflict entirely. This style is typified by delegating tough decisions, accepting fault decisions, and not wanting to hurt anyone’s feelings. It can be appropriate when victory is impossible, when the conflict is trivial or when the other party is in a better position to solve the problem. In many situations, this is a weak and ineffective approach to take.
Managers effective in conflict resolution will understand the different styles and adopt the right style or mixture of styles to match the situation.
The ground rules
- Plan and prepare
- Set the scene
- Gather information
- Relate, empathise and manage
- Agree on the problem and ground rules
- Define, discuss, negotiate and resolve
- Act and follow-up
Conflict in the workplace can be incredibly destructive if not managed effectively. Ensure the conflicting parties are aware of the benefits of resolving their conflict and also the consequences of not resolving. Decide on the conflict resolution styles to be used and ensure all concerns are tabled. Ask that if you can reach full agreement on resolving the tabled concerns, then would the conflict no longer exist. This will extinguish any lingering embers which may ignite new conflict. Take breaks if necessary to allows things to cool down and give time to think and reflect. Reach agreement and record it. Ensure actions are agreed, specific, realistic and measurable. And finally follow-up on any commitments made.