Conflict is inevitable in daily life, particularly the workplace. People come from different backgrounds with varied personalities.
“Although conflict in the workplace is not always a bad thing, ignoring it can turn a small challenge into a larger issue if left unaddressed,” said Amy Turner. She is a human resources advisor and team lead in G&A Partners’ Salt Lake City office.
The company is an HR and administrative outsourcing firm. It provides HR expertise and insights on company culture, workplace dynamics, benefits, and other matters.
Turner and Catherine Coats, an HR assistant in the G&A Partners’ Houston office, talked with Emmanuel Michael about on how to best prevent and resolve conflicts plus steps companies can take to implement these processes.
Michael is rated among the 100 Most Influential Global HR Leaders. He also is an author, public speaker, and mentor.
While companies might have strategies to resolve disagreements in the workplace, published conflict-resolution guidelines have to be backed up by action. Otherwise, they are hollow words that undermine leaders.
“Having open communication and a trusting environment is best,” Turner said. “When dealing with conflict, always keep the focus on the problem, not the person.”
At the same time, each worker needs attention.
“Our leaders make it a priority to get to know each employee who works under them as individuals,” Coats said. “Creating a bond of trust helps employees feel comfortable bringing issues to their manager’s attention when conflicts arise.
“It’s important to value the diversity of thought to really embrace the ideas and relations that can come out from it,” she said. “Likewise, companies need to instill open communication in their culture. That can resolve many issues before they grow.”
Michael agreed that broad prescriptions will fall short. He proposed a FUSION method:
- F – Focus on the issue at hand and key points related to the issue.
- U – Understand the other person’s perspective and point of view.
- S – Be specific about what you think or want.
- I – Use “I” language rather than “they,” “he” and “we” for taking ownership of the conversation.
- O – Be open to options for handling disagreement.
- N – No “hot-button” language such as “You always do this.” Try to avoid using the “you” word and use more of “I,” if possible.
The most effective tool to resolve conflicts is active listening. That’s listening to understand rather than prepare knee-jerk responses. This tactic, done well, also prevents conflicts in the first place.
“Patience and listening,” Turner said. “Hear people out. Repeat their words so you are both on the same page. Then ask about how those involved can come to an agreement.”
Coats emphasized that everyone has a voice.
“Both sides need to feel fully heard and understood before anyone can effectively come to a resolution,” she said. “Avoid the ‘blame game.’ If employees start pointing fingers, redirect the conversation back to the central issue to place the focus on what they can control.”
As Michael paraphrased, there are two sides to every story.
“Listening and giving each person an opportunity to state the case as they understand it helps a lot,” he said.
“Having a structured dispute resolution system in place is also key,” Michael said. “This lets each person know what to do at a time like this.”
Conflicts have a better chance of resolution when both parties understand and respect each other’s point of view. Harsh conflicts might have arisen from insensitivity or simple miscommunication.
“Healthy conflict creates a discussion on different points of view,” Turner said. “That can bring up innovative ideas. Some of the best concepts have come out of a conflict discussion.”
Michael said this is an opportunity to look for what would make employees strong and better.
“When properly resolved, both parties should become better people,” he said. “The company should benefit because we now know how to relate with each other for the benefit of the business.”
Team bonding is a helpful step to head off or resolve conflicts. However, it should not be treated as a silver bullet, particularly for those not into touchy, feely.
There should be a genuine effort from the top down to promote communication and understanding.
“Team bonding is essential,” Turner said. “Trust is paramount on a team. If you can’t trust someone, you won’t share ideas with them. That creates fewer opportunities for collaboration or innovation.”
Coats added that team bonding activities “can help reduce the likelihood of workplace conflict. They teach collaboration, rather than competition.”
People simply talking with people cannot be overrated.
“Team bonding helps because this gives parties the opportunity to interact and engage in constructive communication,” Michael said. “Team building is an opportunity to build trust among employees in the workplace.”
If first attempts at one-to-one conflict resolution fail, invite a disinterested third party who can bring a balanced perspective to the situation.
“Managers should strive to create a relationship of trust so their employees feel comfortable openly sharing concerns,” Turner said. “Only then will they be able to effectively get to the root of problems.”
This is not the time to wait around to see what happens.
“Managers always should address conflict as soon as they’re aware of it,” Coats said. “Those who wait risk losing the respect of those they lead. The conflict festers and potentially becomes toxic.
“It’s easy to become fixated on the minutiae when embroiled in conflict,” she said. “It’s the manager’s responsibility to bring all parties back to reality and help resolve the principal issue at hand.”
Conflict resolution is not anything goes.
“Managers should set team ground rules,” Michael said. “This includes the best way to communicate, cooperate and be productive. In a nutshell, set and model positive group norms.
“Managers should clarify expectations to avoid misunderstandings because this is one of the causes of workplace conflict,” he said. “We cannot overemphasize the need to listen and listen without bias. This is key in ensuring that negative conflict is minimized, eliminated or resolved.”
Conflicts can reverberate throughout the workplace, prompting people to take up sides. Morale dives, and productivity tanks in a sea of suspicion and recrimination.
“It creates a toxic work environment — one where productivity is low and negative competition is high,” Michael said. “It leads to frustration and could result in high attrition. Goals are not achieved because everyone is for himself with no one for the business.”
Turner added that unresolved conflict “will absolutely create performance deficits.”
“Unresolved or toxic conflict can lead to absenteeism, turnover or even litigation if an employee believes the resolution was unjust,” Coats said. “Conflict that’s resolved quickly and respectfully, however, can help promote productivity and improve morale.”
Whatever the conflict — performance or personal — counsel in private. Praise in public.
“Performance matters can be easily shown with data, while personal matters cannot,” Turner said. “Examples of substandard personal behavior can be discussed by revealing the damage to an employee’s professional image as well as to the team.”
Managers can think of themselves as personnel doctors – seeking a diagnosis.
“When it comes to performance-based conflicts, managers should always first attempt to discover the cause — lack of motivation, lack of training, lack of resources,” Coats said. “Then determine the appropriate solution.
“If there is a personal matter at hand, managers should show the employee that they are concerned,” she said. “Then make sure workers are aware of any resources the company offers to help them overcome personal issues. This includes the Employee Assistance Program or taking time off.”
Michael relies on his FUSION method, which he said “works perfectly well for all types of conflicts.”
“Focusing on the issue rather than the person will resolve the conflict quickly and enable parties to reach a win-win situation,” he said. “Hear parties out quickly to avoid a situation where the issue is bottled up. Otherwise, an explosion is bound to happen.”
Leaders can reduce conflict by being actively involved in the workplace. That’s not micromanaging, nor putting the company on autopilot. It’s simply knowing and caring about their people.
“Few people are born with the talent to resolve conflict, but conflict-resolution skills are paramount for those promoted to leadership,” Turner said. “Employers can look into effective communication training that specifically addresses how to approach and resolve conflict. Then they can teach it to all levels of the organization.”
Being available is essential – as long as it’s more than lip service.
“Open-door policies can significantly help minimize workplace conflict, but only if leaders are truly accessible to their teams,” Coats said. “The more accessible a manager is, the more likely it is that employees will be comfortable bringing up issues.
“Management by walking around is another strategy that has been shown to improve organizational efficiency and motivation through improved interpersonal relationships,” she said.
The best leaders show the way, not dictate the journey, according to Michael:
- Leadership should provide guidance, not solutions. Promote a culture of transparency where people are allowed to air their feelings before it becomes negative.
- Leadership should invest in developing their followers to become leaders in managing conflicts. Let them see the benefit of positive conflict resolution.
- Leadership should not take sides, but stay professional in ensuring that amicable resolution is reached each time. The business should be better for it always.