How to Resolve Workplace Conflict

Debbie Zmorenski

Conflict in the workplace seems to be a fact of life. We've all seen situations where different people with different goals and needs have come into conflict. And, we've all seen the often-intense personal animosity that can result.

Organization leaders are responsible for creating a work environment that enables people to thrive. If turf wars, disagreements and differences of opinion escalate into conflict, you must intervene immediately. Not intervening is not an option if you value your organization and your positive culture. In conflict-ridden situations, your mediation skill and interventions are critical.

In many cases, effective conflict resolution skills can make the difference between positive and negative outcomes. The good news is that by resolving conflict successfully, you can solve many of the problems that it has brought to the surface, as well as gain benefits that you might not at first expect, such as:

  • Increased understanding: The discussion needed to resolve conflict expands people's awareness of the situation, giving them an insight into how they can achieve their own goals without undermining those of other people;
  • Increased group cohesion: When conflict is resolved effectively, team members can develop stronger mutual respect and a renewed faith in their ability to work together; and
  • Improved self-knowledge: Conflict pushes individuals to examine their goals in close detail, helping them understand the things that are most important to them, sharpening their focus and enhancing their effectiveness.

However, if conflict is handled ineffectively or if conflict is ignored, the results can be damaging. Conflicting goals can quickly turn into personal dislike, teamwork breaks down, and talent is wasted as people disengage from their work.

Conflict within the workplace can result in a vicious downward spiral of negativity and recrimination. If you're to keep your team or organization working effectively, you need to stop this downward spiral as soon as you can.

Recommended reading: Crucial Conversations Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High

As Susan M. Heathfield says in her conflict resolution article for About.com, "Do not believe, for even a moment, the only people who are affected by the conflict are the participants. Everyone in your office and every employee with whom the conflicting employees interact are affected by the stress. People feel as if they are walking on egg shells in the presence of the antagonists. This contributes to the creation of a hostile work environment for other employees. In worst-case scenarios, your organization members take sides, and your organization is divided."

Working Dynamics reports the following statistics that reflect the cost of conflict in organizations:

  • Thirty to 42 percent of managers' time is spent reaching agreement with others when conflicts occur (Watson, C. and Hoffman, R., "Managers as Negotiators," Leadership Quarterly 7 (1) 1996).
  • It is estimated that more than 65 percent of performance problems result from strained relationships between employees, not from deficits in individual employees' skill or motivation.
  • It is estimated that sexual harassment claims alone are costing each Fortune 500 company $6.7 million per year, with costs for smaller companies being proportionately burdensome.
  • Recent studies find that more than two-thirds of managers spend more than 10 percent of their time handling workplace conflict, and 44 percent of managers spend more than 20 percent of their time in conflict-related issues.
  • A number of surveys indicate that people in all occupations report the most uncomfortable, stress-producing parts of their jobs are the interpersonal conflicts that they experience on a daily basis between themselves and co-workers or supervisors.

Below are a few of the most common reasons for workplace conflict:

  1. Interpersonal Conflict — This conflict is usually caused by opposing personalities or personality clashes that can be caused by many factors such as jealousy, envy or even something as simple as a personal dislike of one person for another. Prejudices based on religious, racial or sexual differences also lead to interpersonal conflict. Often, interpersonal conflict creates gossip that not only perpetuates the conflict between the direct parties involved, but can also affect others on the team.
  2. Structural Conflict — This is when departments have different needs and wants, and are not able to compromise.
  3. Differing Goals — This is when departments have differing goals, and each department is working independently to achieve their goals.
  4. Mutual Dependence of Departments — This is when two departments are dependent on each other, and the failure of either department affects the other.
  5. Role Dissatisfaction — Certain departments or groups may feel that they are not receiving enough recognition or status. This may generate conflict between departments, groups or individuals.
  6. Dependence on Common Resources — When two departments depend on common and scarce resources, conflict can evolve between departments and/or individuals.
  7. Communication Barriers — This often occurs in organizations that have branch offices due to the geographic separation that makes consistent and timely communication possible.

Supervisors and managers who are experiencing conflict within their areas must always consider assessing their possible responsibilities in creating or enabling workplace conflict. Always ask, "What about the work situation is causing these staff members to fail?"

The workplace conflict may appear to be strictly interpersonal; however, it is important to candidly ask yourself if it is possible that workplace conditions were the catalyst or the enabler. Maybe a supervisor ignored the signs of budding conflict. People and departments may have been set up to compete for rewards and/or recognition. Perhaps the feeling is that the awards and recognition are distributed unfairly by management. Getting to the root cause of the conflict is critical in mediating and solving the conflict situation.

The single biggest mistake a supervisor or manager can make is to avoid the conflict, hoping it will go away. It never does! If the conflict appears to have died down on its own, the supervisor or manager may be tempted to believe that it has resolved itself. Conflict does not resolve itself! Invariably, it will rear its ugly head whenever stress increases or a new disagreement occurs.

Often, when conflict reappears, it is more volatile and more debilitating to the organization than it was initially. An unresolved conflict or interpersonal disagreement festers just under the surface in the work environment. It rises to the surface whenever enabled, and always at the worst possible moment.

With a little training, the manager in most cases is quite capable of facilitating conflict resolution sessions. However, if the conflict has escalated to a highly volatile state, it is recommended that a third impartial party attend the session to ensure objectivity and to document dialogue and agreements. The third party may be a human resources representative or another manager from a department that operates separately from the department experiencing the conflict.

The following are three strategies for conflict resolution:

Use Active Listening

During conflict situations, the parties involved tend to spend most of their time talking rather than listening. While each person is speaking, the other person is spending his or her time formulating his or her rebuttal. Often, people judge another's statement based on their own point of view or values, without considering the other person's perspective. As a result, people hear what they want to hear rather than what the speaker intended to communicate.

Emotions also come into play. Once a conflict has escalated emotionally, it is very difficult to listen objectively. It is the manager's job as mediator to listen objectively to each side, ensure that both or all parties are listening, and that each person has a chance to state his or her side of the situation. The manager can accomplish this by asking open-ended questions, showing empathy for both sides, using feedback to reinforce what you have heard, keeping emotions under control and being non-judgmental.

Deal with Conflict Collaboratively

Get all involved parties in a neutral/private environment to facilitate conflict resolution. Ask each participant to provide a written statement in advance describing the situation in his or her own words. These statements will give the mediating manager insight into the possible causes of the conflict.

During the session, give each party a chance to tell his or her side of the situation without interruption. Analyze the problem from each person’s perspective and collaboratively develop solutions. Agree to meet in the future to check on the progress of the solution.

Clearly State Expectations for Future Behavior

Clearly describe the damage to the organization as a result of employee conflict and the consequences for future inappropriate behavior.

It is important to remember that the manager's role in conflict resolution is that of mediator. The manager must remain impartial and cannot enter into conflict resolution if he or she has preconceived opinions or ideas about who is right or wrong in the situation. If the manager finds that he or she cannot be impartial, that person should assign the task of the conflict resolution session to a third impartial party such as a human resources manager.

Mediating a conflict is challenging, but as a manager or supervisor, the role of mediator comes with your territory. Your willingness to appropriately intervene sets the stage for your own success. You craft a work environment that enables the success of the people who work there. I believe you can learn to do it. Conflict mediation is an example of "practice makes perfect."

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About the Author

Deborah K. Zmorenski, MBA, is the co-owner and senior partner of Leader’s Strategic Advantage Inc., an Orlando, Fla.-based consulting firm. During her 34-year career with the Walt Disney W...