Dealing with workplace conflict is an inevitable part of being a leader. Conflict can arise over a disagreement over the best way to do something (process), it can arise over access to funds or skills (scarce resources), or it can arise from deep, conflicting value systems (beliefs). The first two can be addressed by active leadership, the last one is much more difficult and may require specialist interventions.
Insights into workplace conflict
Conflict in the workplace is inescapable and it’s part of your job. It’s going to happen, so it’s best to learn the skills of conflict management.
A little conflict is a good thing: it can challenge old ways of thinking, expose inefficiencies and bring innovation. When conflict is worked through, to a genuine resolution, the whole business benefits.
However, conflict must be dealt with when it becomes disruptive. When conflict goes on for too long, it poisons the organisation and destroys teamwork.
Stress leads to frustration, which leads to conflict. Stress and frustration are associated with change. When conflict emerges, it’s good to assess what else has been changing in the organisation, to find the cause.
It’s important to note that conflict is different from competition. Healthy competition between individuals and departments should not be a cause of conflict.
Causes of conflict in the workplace
Perceived differences in treatment or status. An individual or group may be treated differently, contrary to their expectations, and this leads to a sense of deprivation.
Role conflicts. Many conflicts arise from roles in the organisation. The marketing manager wants lots of stock of a particular product right now; the factory manager has a production schedule incorporating long production runs to increase efficiencies. The roles are focused on different priorities, but they can be synchronised.
Inner conflict. An individual may be going through a tough time. Personal conflicts or life events may put the individual in a bad place, and this manifests in the workplace.
Different values within a group. One part of a group may favour personal relationships; another faction in the group may favour aggressive goal achievement. Unless the two are harmonised, conflict will impede achievement.
Skill or task demarcation. If there’s doubt about where one job ends, and another begins, conflict will ensue. Inadequate role clarification may give rise to matters falling through the gaps or assumptions that both individuals are responsible for the same output. Either way, someone is going to be upset.
Ambiguous instructions. This is a frequent problem. A leader will give instructions and assume information not available to the recipient. The employee will then perform the tasks, but does so without the full picture. The manager then becomes angry and accuses the employee of incompetence. A vicious spiral ensues.
Opposing personalities. One person in the team may have a gentle easy-going personality. Another might have an insensitive communication style. This is going the result in conflict.
Different prejudices and biases. A team member may feel hard done because of some external characteristic. Ageism, sexism and racism can play a part here.
Differences in hierarchy. A boss may demand a certain course of action, by ‘pulling rank’. An employee closer to the actual workface can foresee problems in execution.
Carry-over for a previous, unresolved conflict. Unsettled conflict can hang around for a long time and contaminate subsequent interactions.
There are right ways and wrong ways to go about resolving conflict.
Wrong ways to resolve conflict
Imposing authority. I am the boss. This is how it’s going to be. And that is the end of the matter.
Avoiding the matter. Let’s leave it for a day or two. The matter might resolve itself.
Smoothing ruffled feathers. I quite understand how you feel. You are a valued employee.
Compromising. Nobody wins in a compromise and the inevitable explosion is delayed to a later date.
Right ways to resolve conflict
Intervention by a third party. Getting a third party in to mediate between you and a team member helps to depersonalise the conflict.
Constructive confrontation. This is a specialist technique, where the leader confronts the person who is the cause of the conflict, and in a calm, structured manner identifies, analyses, and plans solutions to the conflict. It’s a free and open discussion in which individuals can be frank without fear of punishment or blame.
Bring it out in the open! Often a conflict can be resolved by bringing it out into the open and “giving it a name.” This allows the team to talk about it openly and not in cliques in the break-out area or the car park.
It’s also possible to reduce or eliminate conflict by making shrewd institutional changes:
- Separate the conflicting personalities, either physically or place them in different departments. In this way, their skills and knowledge are retained, but they are no longer in conflict.
- Change to the workflow can assist in reducing conflict.
- An attuned manager will deal with self-esteem or status issues.
8 tips for effectively managing conflict in the workplace
- Analyse before intervening. What triggered the conflict? Who is angry with whom? Who is not getting what they want? Who is afraid of losing what? Is the anger justified or is it grandstanding?
- Remain objective. Your response to the conflict can escalate or decrease the intensity of the problem. Provide an objective or neutral point of view. Help plan how you are going to work with the other party(s) to achieve resolution.
- State the reason for the intervention. It helps to explain exactly why you are calling the meeting. Label and describe the behaviours that are giving rise to the conflict problem.
- Lay out the ground rules for discussion. The classic rules for a good conversation. One person at a time. No overtalking. The right of reply. No shouting or aggression. No personal attacks. Don’t offer judgements. Explore feelings. Encourage open communication.
- Suggest alternatives. View the problem as a specific behaviour or set of circumstances rather than attributing negative feelings to the whole person. Have the other person or persons come up with alternatives. This keeps the attention on solving the problem, rather than defending positions.
- Develop a course of action. Work together. This requires that each person in the conflict stops placing blame and takes ownership of the problem. Have them make a commitment to work together and listen to each other to solve the conflict. Develop a balanced plan of give and take that satisfies everyone’s interests.
- Focus on the future. In conflict, we tend to remember every single thing that ever bothered us about that person. People in conflict need to vent about the past but they often dwell on the past. Often the best way to take ownership of the problem is to recognise that regardless of the past, you need to create a plan to address the present conflict and those that may arise in the future.
- Obtain a specific agreement, and set dates for follow-up. The conflict will not be resolved by a single meeting. Follow up actions must be monitored, and the leader should check in regularly to see that the conflict is not being driven underground.
Organisations are human social systems. They allow us to cooperate and achieve great things. Conflict is inevitable because we each have our own way of understanding and responding to situations. Conflict is all around us, it is happening every day, and we can use our conflicts to make positive changes in the workplace, with our customers, and at home with our families. When conflict arises, it does not mean that you have failed as a leader. It’s an opportunity to be a truly exceptional leader.