How to Resolve Conflict in the Workplace Effectively
Conflict is part of life. We can get into conflicting viewpoints with our coworkers, spouse, kids, the guy at the convenience store, etc. The truth is that even though we strive to be nice and get along with others, conflict is a natural part of life that can occur in any place where we have a relationship with others. That’s why it’s important to know how to resolve conflict.
Some of us are better at dealing with conflict than others. Personally, I don’t have an issue confronting a difference of opinion right when it occurs. My wife, on the other hand, does not like conflict and typically needs at least a few hours to process and think through whatever it was we disagreed on. We can then talk through our differences.
Her method of dealing with our disagreements is probably better than mine because my quick-to-confront-type routine has gotten me into trouble more than once. This has certainly proven to be true in my case at work on more than one occasion, which leads us to the question: how to resolve conflict in the workplace effectively?
Table of Contents
How great managers resolve any team conflict
Recognize the early signs of team conflict
As a manager you need to keep some mental bandwidth free to observe your team. This comes in many forms. It includes being aware of the wellbeing of your team, their performance, their engagement with their work and the organization.
You also need to keep an eye out for behaviors that are early indicators of conflict. It might be a shrug of the shoulders, a particular tone of voice, or perhaps the absence of a response. Be observant of how your team are working together and the early signs of conflict.
Check your biases
Confirmation bias: the tendency to value and focus on ideas that affirm preexisting beliefs. If you already have doubts about one team member, any negative comments or criticism will be easier to accept (whether it’s true or not!).
Sunk cost bias: a tendency to continue to provide support once an investment has been made. If you have invested time and energy in a team member, you’re going to find it harder to acknowledge mistakes that they’ve made.
Provide feedback to your team members
Effective feedback looks like this: start with the observed behavior, then describe the consequences. To open a discussion, add a big, neutral question such as “what are your thoughts on this?”.
The team member may acknowledge what they had stepped over the line. In this case, your job is done. Or they may have raises further objections, in which case you’re in dialogue about appropriate behavior in the future.
Don’t personalize, focus on behavior and outcomes
Listen, and demonstrate your emotional intelligence
You see people starting to ‘leak emotions’ during conflict. Perhaps they’ll raise their voices, interrupt, roll their eyes, make little comments, resort to email rather than picking up the phone, go ‘off video’ in calls when it’s not their usual habit. These are some of the early signs that I referred to earlier.
When you’re working to resolve team conflict, it’s essential that you don’t slip into negative behaviors yourself. Pause, calm yourself, draw on your emotional intelligence and apply your listening skills.
Tap into the authority of the organization
You can access the ‘soft power’ that stems from the organization’s values, the strategy, the vision, mission, defined leadership competencies, and any other documented points of reference. I know it’s easy to be cynical about these assets, but as a manager you can help to bring them to life by referencing them during conflict.
Understand the power of progressive action
Have a plan of progressive action in mind. For example, you might talk to team members individually first. If the conflict continues, talk to them together. Then discuss with the whole team. Then involve HR. Ultimately you might manage team members out of the business (not ideal, but sometime necessary).
Know when to involve your HR team
5 common examples of team conflict plus solutions
Example 1: team conflict caused by personality clashes
The solution: broker the peace, set expectations, monitor carefully, recognize progress. To broker the peace: talk to each of the individuals separately, ask their perspective, empathize. Then set expectations for future behavior. All this can be done by providing effective feedback. Keep an eye on them. Then, when appropriate, recognize the progress they have made.
Example 2: team conflict caused by poor communication
The solution: diagnose the specific problem, develop their skills, set expectations. One key consideration when diagnosing the problem: is this a ‘one-off’ event or a recurring problem. For example, if certain team members are regularly getting into length passive-aggressive email exchanges, you know there’s an issue to be addressed.
Sometimes there is a skills gap that needs to be resolved. Ask yourself this question: “If they really wanted to do the right thing, could they?”. The answer will help you see if there’s a skills gap that you need to close.
Example 3: team conflict caused by bullying and harassment
Some conflict quickly moves beyond what is acceptable in the workplace. Patterns of mistreatment that cause either physical or emotional harm. Sometimes this is easy to recognize, and sometimes it’s the result of microaggressions.
The solution: seek advice from HR, make ‘contemporaneous’ notes of all actions. As soon as you’re aware of these patterns, seek HR advice. You should also start making ‘contemporaneous’ notes of all relevant conversations, observations, actions. (‘Contemporaneous’ is just a fancy word for making the notes soon after the events have taken place, the same day is a good benchmark.)
Example 4: team conflict caused by poor work habits
Team members that turn up late, make careless mistakes, miss deadlines. All examples of poor work habits. These behaviors can easily trigger conflict with other team members (especially with the team members who do actually care about the quality of work done!).
The solution: provide feedback, set clear goals, implement closer supervision. Managing poor performance is one of the biggest challenges for any manager. Start by providing feedback, then set FAST goals and invest more time in closer supervision until the performance improves.
Example 5: team conflict caused by organizational change
For example, imagine that your team is taking on some new responsibilities. Some of your team will probably be excited, they will approach the opportunity with a growth mindset and welcome the opportunity to learn.
The solution: make the case for change, encourage and support each team member (recognizing where they currently are in the journey). First, make sure you have the basics in place to implement change successfully. Then, focus on communication. Make the case for change.