resolving conflict at work

Your people skills have helped you in your career ever since you were a student. You can deliver bad news with empathy. You welcome criticism with a smile. Coworkers confide in you because they know that you do not gossip. When you are in a managerial role, however, resolving conflict at work is even more of a challenge than it was before. It requires not only empathy and neutrality but also planning to prevent conflicts before they begin.

Why Do Workplace Conflicts Happen?

Conflicts can arise in any situation. Whenever a group of people gathers, it is likely that they will disagree about something. Consider how hard it is for a small group of close friends to agree on which pizza toppings to order, even if their views align on most other things.

When you are the manager of a small business, personality conflicts among your small team of employees can put a damper on productivity and morale. The conflict can feel all-consuming, especially if you regard your coworkers as a family. Conflicts can also happen with clients or with other businesses with which you interact. Unrelated sources of stress, such as a general increase in the cost of living, can make these conflicts worse. In other words, workplace conflicts can happen for any reason. Therefore, resolving conflict at work should be part of your skillset, no matter your line of work.

Do You Have What It Takes to Manage Conflict in Your Organization?

Perhaps you have already successfully managed some conflicts at work. For example, if you found a creative solution so that all of your employees could work a schedule that accommodated their responsibilities outside of work, then you have experience resolving conflict at work. If problem-solving comes naturally to you, then you are on your way to becoming successful at workplace conflict resolution. If you are used to solving problems independently, then these are some skills you may need to build upon to improve your conflict resolution abilities:

• Listening to everyone’s perspective before making a decision
• Identifying the points on which all parties in the conflict agree, so you can focus on how to resolve the disagreements
• Keeping your conversations with parties to the conflict confidential, except when they offer to share information with others
• Communicating your proposed solutions and delegating responsibility for implementing them to various people

What Is CARE in the Context of Conflict Resolution?

You can use the acronym CARE as a mnemonic for the ideal way to resolve conflict in the workplace. These are the four steps of CARE for resolving conflict at work:

• Communicate – Tell the other person what you perceive the problem to be. Accept responsibility for your role in creating the problem or letting it get worse. If you are a manager, it is especially important to address conflicts directly before they escalate.
• Actively listen – Give each person involved in the conflict a chance to tell his or her side of the story. Do not interrupt, even if you think that you hear easily correctable factual errors. Paraphrase what each person said to show that you understood.
• Review options – Suggest possible solutions to the problem. You might need to bring in third parties to help you resolve the issue. Depending on the nature of the conflict, these third parties could be mediators or subject matter experts.
• End with a win-win – When possible, agree to a solution that all parties find satisfactory. The best kind of conflict resolution is when no one feels that decision-makers decided against them.

In an ideal world, CARE would be all you needed to resolve every conflict that arises in your workplace. For some conflicts, though, it is not as simple as talking things out.

When Should You File a Formal Complaint?

One of the most difficult challenges managers face regarding conflict resolution is when egregious misconduct and violations of the law occur within the teams they manage. If members of your team antagonize each other to the point that it interferes with the work of the targets of this behavior, it is harassment. According to federal and state employment laws, harassment, also known as a hostile work environment, is a form of employment discrimination. This definition applies when the harassment is based on a protected characteristic of the employee, such as race, sex, religion, or family status.

Filing a formal complaint about harassment or other forms of employment discrimination is a protected activity. You should not discourage employees you manage from complaining to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) about any discrimination they have experienced. The EEOC conducts an investigation about every discrimination complaint it receives. It gives permission to file discrimination lawsuits in less than half of these cases, though. Cooperating with an EEOC investigation is also a protected activity. Your employer does not have the right to retaliate against you for participating in the investigation.

An Open Door Policy Can Prevent Conflict and Make It Easier to Resolve

Being a conflict mediator should not take up a large part of your time at work. Managers have many duties, only one of which is resolving conflicts among employees on their teams. You face an uphill battle if conflict brews on your team for weeks or months before you find out about it. A better solution is simply to be approachable. Make it easy for your employees to contact you. If you work in an office, leave your office door open whenever this is feasible. Encourage employees to stop by and talk whenever they want to. In addition to creating a friendly atmosphere in the workplace, you will find out about interpersonal conflicts on your team before they spiral out of control.

Which Conflicts Are Worth Ignoring?

Most conflicts among employees get worse if managers wait too long to take decisive action. Despite this, not every disagreement requires a formal conflict mediation session. In some cases, bringing out your entire conflict mediation toolkit every time someone voices disagreement can make things worse.

Effectively resolving conflict at work means knowing when employees can work out their differences without your intervention. Meddlesome managers are not the ones who earn employees’ trust. Sometimes it is possible to tell whether employees want and need your help with conflict resolution just by reading the room. When this does not work, ask whether an employee wants to talk to you about a particular issue. If you observe that things are getting worse, schedule one-on-one meetings with each of the parties involved in the conflict.

Resolving Conflicts at Work Without Micromanaging

You have heard the conventional wisdom that the best managers adopt a “high responsibility, low control” approach. In other words, the best managers lead without bossing people around. When you know that a frank discussion about the problem is necessary, you should initiate this discussion. You should not, however, dominate the conversation. In fact, make it your goal to speak as little as possible during mediation sessions.

It is possible that the gift of gab was instrumental in landing you a managerial position, but you may need to rein it in during conflict resolution situations. If necessary, keep track in your mind of how much you are talking. Imagine that you are using a speech-to-text word-processing program, and you have the word count tool enabled.

When to Bring in Other People to Help With Conflict Resolution

In some cases, your role is to know that conflict resolution is necessary, but not to handle conflict resolution single-handedly. If you are the direct supervisor of the parties involved, they might think that you are biased toward some employees and against others. In fact, they might think this despite all your efforts to be unbiased in your interactions with your team. You might also need help with conflict resolution when you have already tried everything to resolve the conflict, but the conflict persists.

The best person to resolve the conflict might be your direct supervisor or a member of upper management. You might also seek out the views of someone from another department in your organization, who is knowledgeable about the nature of your work but unbiased toward the employees involved. In some cases, it is best to seek the help of professional mediators or arbitrators. Mediation is not just for court cases and contract disputes. It can also be a useful option for resolving conflict in the workplace.

Resolving Conflict at Work Begins With You

As a manager, you are a role model for your entire team. They will follow your example for resolving conflict at work, as they will for many other aspects of the job. Therefore, it will benefit everyone in your organization if you invest in sharpening your conflict resolution skills. Conflict management courses are an excellent opportunity for businesspeople to make their organizations more successful. You can choose from various formats, such as in-person and online, or individual coaching and group workshops. Get in touch with PeaceComm to set your organization on the right path to conflict management and appropriate solutions to workplace conflicts.