You’ve probably asked yourself many times what the best conflict resolution strategies are. No wonder. The cost of conflict in the workplace in the United States may amount to $359 billion in paid hours (taking into account an average hourly pay of $17.95) or 385 million working days. Moreover, 85 percent of the US employees constantly deal with conflict on some definite level while 29 percent of the population encounter it almost every day at work. These figures call on leaders to continuously upskill in conflict management strategies and learn new techniques.
At the same time, conflict is stressful for any leader. Yet, when managed in an appropriate manner, it can be turned into productive energy. It’s a widely accepted fact that conflict resolution techniques for leaders need to go beyond “firing the troublemaker” and should include some creative strategies that help them deal with difficult personalities and negative situations within their team, department, or company. In this guide, we’ll describe 20+ techniques to help, but first, let’s find out what causes conflict.
The Main Causes of Conflict
Conflict at work is any workplace disagreement that disrupts the smooth flow of work. One study has shown that when asked about the reasons for interpersonal conflicts at work, employees usually refer to poor leadership, personality confrontations, lack of openness or honesty and workload stress.
As conflict is an inevitable part of any work environment, 70 percent of the US employees regard the ability to manage conflict as a vital skill for leadership. Moreover, 54 percent of the population believe that managers could be more successful in resolving conflicts if they dealt with strained relationships immediately after spotting them.
Given the differences between people, the chances for arising conflicts are really high. The feeling of being under immense mental or emotional, as well as physical pressure such as bullying, sexual harassment, violence or perceived discrimination stifle creativity and motivation among employees. Lack of openness in the company is another factor that spurs conflict at work. All the hidden things and silent decisions never go unnoticed. What is more, stress and immense workload at work are other solid reasons for emerging disputes.
The Best Conflict Resolution Strategies
Whenever you’re in conflict with someone, there is one factor that can make the difference between damaging your relationship and deepening it. That factor is attitude. – William James.
What are conflict resolution strategies? These are well-considered plans of actions in case of a serious conflict emergence. Diligent and goal-oriented managers shouldn’t necessarily predict all the tricky things that might happen in the workplace. However, how they deal with conflict is one of the true measures of leadership. New leaders often believe that conflict is bad or should be avoided at all costs, somehow believing that harmony will emerge without deliberate effort. But this certainly isn’t the case.
Learning effective conflict resolution strategies and implementing them on a constant basis is not only required from team leaders but will also put you in a position of power with team members, increasing respect and trust among employees.
Usually, when it comes to conflict resolution, immediate managers are encouraged to act in a rather quick and effective manner. This is especially crucial when the conflict has taken a toll on either the tasks or relationships within a team. Any employees who deal with conflicts of different magnitudes on a daily basis can greatly benefit from effectively developed strategies for resolving them. The following strategies will complement your conflict management styles and help you find a way out in any situation.
1. Engage Teams in Co-opetition Instead of Competition
This conflict resolution model can be witnessed in sports competitions or during a war. It is designed for people who start the conflict with the aim to win by any means. As Ashley Merryman claims in her book Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing, the competition really ignites huge sparks of creativity:
Whether professional musicians or school children, studies have shown competition fuels creativity and even improves the quality of the work produced. More than that, the skills that make you a great competitor – such as a willingness to push boundaries, trust one’s instincts, problem-solve – those are the same skills needed for innovation. – Ashley Merryman
However, the most efficient kind of healthy competition can be cooperative competition or co-opetition. This technique traces back to Game Theory which advises working in a team as a way to encourage one another. Besides, Marilee B. Sprenger, the author of The Leadership Brain for Dummies states that teamwork helps to release brain chemicals which boost motivation. If you need to win teams to your way of thinking, check this guide.
Sometimes it is necessary for a business to conform to the current state of affairs with the perspective of running it smoothly. Accommodating, when one party gives in to another one, aims at preserving harmony between them. The strategy can be used when the matter is of little importance to the company. Besides, it can be appropriate in two cases:
- (1) if you are a manager and want your subordinates to take on responsibility and learn from their own mistakes, and
- (2) when you are hopelessly outmatched in power and the other side is using a competing strategy and you are going to lose anyway.
However, try to avoid overusing this strategy and sounding like an overly accommodating person.
3. Don’t Avoid Conflict, Sleep on It
Simply ignoring the conflict situation in order to save energy and nerves is not a way out. The bottom line of this approach is far more valuable than it seems on the surface. There are many positive outcomes from avoiding the confrontation in the workplace. “Sleeping on it” can make us breathe deeply and take some time to think about our real desires and needs in a given issue. But this relaxing and calm mindset should be employed at the right time, since, if overused, it will lead to the absence of initiative and passivity.
4. Make a Compromise
What is the best approach to conflict resolution? The most effective method of conflict resolution is compromising. When the conflict is escalating in an organization, it is a shared responsibility of all the members, not only of the manager, to resolve it by peaceful and effective means.
To avoid a downward spiral of the confrontation in the workplace, the mediation strategies in conflict resolution are carried out. Compromising is most often used as a bright example of such mediation. Its main policy line resides in handling the conflict harmoniously and appropriately for each party. A “win-win” goal of such a strategy demonstrates it’s not aggressive and mutually beneficial tactics.
This conflict resolution strategy is regarded as the most mature and fair as it allows equality and justice to thrive. The only drawback of it can be the degree of content after the compromise is achieved as both parties end up feeling totally unhappy. In the best case, one of the sides interested may allow another one to get everything they want, or almost everything, in exchange for a stronger relationship and delight from the opponent.
5. Collaborate to Weigh in Different Points of View
An assertive and cooperative collaboration is considered to be one of the best employee conflict resolution strategies. Its main principle lies in collecting versatile opinions and integrating them into a one brainstorming pool. Such a technique allows the freedom of self-expression and unity of different viewpoints. As they say, “in differences we unite.”
Moreover, its main objective is to find the creative solution totally acceptable to all the parties included. All the members make some definite contribution by co-creating and co-working with the aim of discovering the possible way out of a complicated situation. Such a process is carried out together. That’s why the shared involvement and decision-making process stimulate abundant initiatives and a more creative approach.
6. Establish a Compensation Policy
Another technique for successful conflict management is the compensation policy. Including basic salary, bonus, benefits, and non-cash compensation, this workplace conflict resolution strategy turns out to be helpful in practice. A very important factor here is ensuring that organizations provide clear-cut instructions about the payment method for their employees.
The compensational elements regulated by provincial employment laws comprise minimum wage, holiday pay, overtime pay, gratuities, and vacation pay. Besides, many organizations establish compensation principles that provide transparency and fairness in salary administration. An efficient compensation policy means objective and updated job descriptions together with consistent and fair job evaluation. An adequate reward system in an organization can help to avoid miscomprehension.
7. Apply the FUSION Method
The acronym FUSION, introduced by Robin Throckmorton, aims at resolving or facilitating a conflict in the workplace. Its chief components stand for F – focus, U – understanding, S – specific, I – language, O – open, N – no “hot-button” language. According to the inventor, the word “fusion” can be represented as a bomb or putting two opposite things together. If we manage to deactivate the bomb, we will end up with the right solution in a conflict, no matter how complicated it is.
8. Communicate Your Needs Clearly
This employee conflict resolution strategy accounts for a clear layout of the organizational goals and policy. Without doubt, managers’ task is to get across the message of the right behavior to the workers to avoid any miscomprehension. Moreover, the final result of any business affair should be mutually beneficial cooperation and agreement. When employees are familiar with clear demands or expectations, then they can tackle the issue in a more determined way. The key point of this technique is the structure which enables all those involved to deal with the situation in a logical and consistent manner.
9. Create a Special Program
Many conflict situations can be traced back to the previous minor issues, for example, misunderstanding, miscommunication, confusion about the structure and goals of the work. All of these factors contribute to disappointments and arising conflicts. The inability of the group to work together and agree unanimously is a condition for the emergence of future conflicts.
Creating a clear program or plan of actions in a company and sharing among the team members can be beneficial. The process of the shared program outlining makes it easier for the team to contribute and feel the weight of their opinions if they are taken into account. A standard group process consists of expectations and also preferences, e.g. about the communication channels.
10. Guide Rather Than Solve
Being a leader, you have to fully act out this role, especially when it comes to conflict management. It’s better to never take sides in a conflict situation. The leader or manager has to act as a mediator in a heated debate or confrontation, not as a real participant and supporter of one party. Managers have to direct their co-workers in an appropriate manner and stimulate them to find a solution for themselves. Thus, providing guidance and not a solution itself is a very beneficial strategy in any business issue. Make the team members analyze information, search for ways out and discover their own ideas. Train their mind to be always focused, aware and alert.
11. Mark a “Cool Down” Zone
Contributing to FitSmallBusiness, an editor at HR People, John Crowley claims that conflicts take roots from tensions, which can escalate very easily and quickly if not paying attention to them in time. Office workers very often experience such feelings as anger, annoyance or stress in a closed environment of the office open spaces. That’s why they can’t simply escape such unhealthy and toxic atmosphere in order to take a breath and relax for a while.
So, Crawley suggests designating special “cool down” zones for the employees where they can take it easy and refresh for a while. The aforementioned zones can provide the space “where potential conflicts can simmer down before they bubble over.” Dispersing a potential confrontation as a preventive method is much better than eagerly facing and struggling with it. And the very existence of such corners can function as a calming place for all those under immense stress or workload, kind of a workplace “nirvana”, if we may call it so.
12. Empathize and Engage
Sometimes workplace conflict is inevitable. In this case, providing insight into another person’s mindset can come in handy. A simple question like “Can we talk?” can engage both parties into a private conversation as it provides the possibility for self-expression. However, if it’s not possible, then an intermediary person (not necessarily a manager) can help in this old debate team strategy to solve a workplace conflict. Each member then will have the opportunity to argue each other’s issue.
13. Develop an Online Conflict Resolution System
Living in the digital era, when everything exists in double realities – online and offline, we simply can’t ignore the benefits of both, especially the first one. The project of Brav online conflict management launched by Dr. Buddy Thornton was designed to resolve disputes online. This platform is a good tool for mitigating two basic reasons for conflicts in the workplace such as fear and intimidation. According to this technique, the potency of misbehavior can lead to violent confrontations among the workers. Thus, trials to direct the conduct into the right vector can be beneficial for both the company and the employees.
14. Make Use of Humor
Using humor as an alternative workplace conflict resolution strategy really makes sense as it helps to look at the problem from a more positive perspective. There is a long history of research on “humor as a useful tool in smoothing interpersonal relationships and handling ticklish situations.” In other words, humor promotes social cohesion and unity. When laughing together, people identify with shared cultural meanings. Moreover, using humor reduces stress and deactivates the possibilities for conflict emergence.
15. Stand up for Your Own Rights
There are situations when a party involved in serious conflict in the workplace should adhere to one’s own principles as firmly as possible. Such an assertive approach is really helpful for a company which decides to follow certain guidelines and prioritize definite things. For example, when an organization faces a challenge of deviating rules or instructions in order to suit the policy of another party then they may end up giving up on their own policy line. An assertive method establishes the constructive dialogue between sides as it honors both of them.
16. Listen Actively and Reflectively
Active and reflective listening as a workplace conflict resolution technique means that you change your perception of a situation. When all of a sudden a burning impulse of reacting negatively to certain provocation from the outside arises, then this strategy comes really handy. What is more, listening to your colleague’s perspective before sharing your own is key. Empathy is valuable in conflict management as it allows for a closer look at the issue at hand. Moreover, using non-accusatory language would make communication more polite and open.
17. Focus on Facts
Quite often the only solid reason for conflict at work may be misunderstanding and, as a result, misinterpretation of a situation. That’s why it is highly recommended to focus on facts rather than on personal opinions or beliefs. Focusing on data helps us to be objective and unbiased. When we start to interpret, analyse, evaluate and judge – then a split occurs as there are many perspectives to view the same situation. Read how to survive in disagreements in this article.
18. Ask Questions
Asking the right questions can help resolve the conflicts between employees faster. The questions can be fact-based and exploratory. Fact-based questions are designed to explore the issue and they usually start with who, what, when, where, and how. As far as exploratory questions are concerned, you can use them to discover what the problem is and how each party feels it can be sorted out in the most efficient way. An important point here is to avoid accusatory language.
19. Mind Your Nonverbal Communication
Did you know that words express only 7 percent of the message we want to get across? Nonverbal communication is vital in resolving interpersonal conflict situations. Body language reveals 55 percent of our message, while 38 percent are conveyed through the tone of voice. Tone of voice itself can show disappointment, anger, irritation, confidence, sarcasm, affection or disgust. The keys to effective nonverbal communication are paying full attention, avoiding fast jumps to conclusions, and relying less on words. Try to demonstrate consistency in your verbal and nonverbal messages, send out signals that show understanding (nodding or giving out certain approving sounds).
20. Consider Bringing in a Third Party
Taking an objective look at a conflict situation can bring fruitful results for an organization. A third party representative can play the role of a mediator, arbitrator or litigator, depending on the method of conflict management. A neutral third party can either help to manage the conflict or solve it by itself.
21. Don’t Take It Personally
The last conflict resolution strategy may sound like the easiest one, but in fact it requires personal willpower and stamina. People with strong personalities never take conflicts personally, they always distance themselves from its toxic influence. According to Mary Nathan, conflict management is all about not taking it personally. When conflict escalates, both parties involved feel offended and disrespected. Taking someone’s criticism literally and seriously can turn the external remarks into a potential threat. And, consequently, it can urge a strong desire to defend oneself against a virtual outward enemy.
Every cloud has a silver lining, though. Conflicts might have some positive results if managed professionally. First of all, they can stimulate progress by learning from failures. Secondly, they can deepen the level of trust. Thirdly, they can strengthen relationships and, consequently, boost creativity and optimize productivity. By talking through all the possible disapprovals and disagreements, the parties involved may eliminate heated debates or serious conflict situations. All being said, efficient conflict management requires urgent and hands-on techniques in coping with workplace conflicts.