Conflict Management in the Workplace: Strategies & Examples

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Conflict will inevitably arise when you expect people to work together or communicate with one another. How you handle conflict sets the tone for your work environment and affects morale, productivity and absenteeism. Conflict management techniques are crucial for managers and human resource professionals to learn but can also be taught to employees in order to improve communication and prevent conflicts from building.

Why Does Conflict Happen?

To put it simply, conflict happens because everyone is different. If we all had the same values, personality and productivity levels, communicated the same way and always placed the company's interests before our own, misunderstandings would never occur. However, because variations exist across all these factors and more, we inevitably perceive situations differently than other individuals.

You don't have to find homogeneous team members in order to create a conflict-free environment. In fact, your employees' differences can often serve as a complement, creating a stronger team. Your goal as a business owner is not to avoid conflict altogether but to effectively manage and resolve conflict when it arises.

What's even better is if your employees have the right tools to solve an interpersonal conflict among themselves. This responsibility prevents upper management from spending too much time mediating smaller conflicts. When employees take charge, productivity and team cohesion increases. In order for employees to become effective at resolving conflict, they'll need some training.

Getting Everyone on the Same Page

Developing your team's conflict management skills starts with getting everyone on the same page and providing a common goal to accomplish the best outcome regardless of individual personality types. It's important to share your expectations with your employees and provide some practical training for conflict resolution skills. However, you should also give employees the chance to create their own expectations as a team. By giving team members buy-in, they are more likely to take new conflict management protocols seriously.

Your human resources department will ideally spearhead the conflict resolution training initiative since this is the department that will also handle formal complaints against other employees and that will end up mediating problems that can't be solved by department managers. If your small business doesn't have an HR department, consider hiring an HR consultant for a day's training. One important factor to discuss at this training is that we all tend to default to one of five conflict management strategies, but only one is truly effective and is worth learning.

5 Conflict Management Strategies

According to the Thomas-Kilmann model of conflict styles, the five conflict resolution strategies include avoiding, competing, accommodating, compromising and collaborating. Each strategy involves varying degrees of assertiveness (interest in furthering one's own needs) and cooperativeness (willingness to further the other person's needs).

The ideal method for handling conflict — collaborating — prioritizes both a high level of assertiveness and a high level of cooperativeness. However, it's important to understand the other four types of conflict management strategies in order to recognize them in your team members and actively encourage individuals to be more assertive or cooperative as needed.

1. Avoiding

The first strategy for "resolving" workplace conflicts is to simply avoid it and hope it goes away. This method simply buries the conflict rather than addressing it head on, and no one's needs are met. It has the lowest amount of both cooperativeness and assertiveness in the Thomas-Kilmann model.

Avoiding conflict temporarily can be a smart strategy. If one of your employees feels particularly angry or emotional about a problem, having him take a break can help him clear his head and can promote the kind of cooperative nature that's necessary for true conflict management. However, as a long-term strategy, avoidance is ineffective.

2. Competing

When an individual has zero interest in meeting the other person's needs and wants all of her own needs met, she is using a "competing" conflict management strategy. People who solve problems with a competing attitude display no cooperation but a high level of assertiveness.

These individuals may be described as "difficult people," but that doesn't mean they can't learn how to become more cooperative to find a win-win situation. People fall back on a typical conflict management strategy without necessarily being aware that there's a name for it or that there's a better way to do things. Education can help.

3. Accommodating

As the exact opposite of competing, the accommodating style displays zero assertiveness and a high level of cooperation. These individuals are willing to ignore their own needs in order to meet the needs of the other person. In order to achieve positive outcomes, people who tend to be accommodating should practice recognizing and verbalizing their own needs.

4. Compromising

Compromising as a form of conflict management sounds like an excellent solution, but it's not the total win-win that it appears to be at first glance. According to the Thomas-Kilmann model, a compromising conflict management style allows some but not all of both parties' needs to be met. Both assertiveness and cooperation are at play but in limited doses. Therefore, neither party is completely satisfied with the resolution.

5. Collaborating

Finally, when a high level of cooperation meets a high level of assertiveness, the result is collaboration. This is the recommended conflict management strategy, as it promotes mutual respect and creative problem solving. Both parties are willing to cooperate but not at the expense of their own needs. There's almost always a solution that meets the needs of both people; it just has to be found.

Emotional Intelligence and Conflict Management

In addition to being aware of the importance of assertiveness and cooperation, employees should know that many conflicts can be prevented or resolved with effective communication, but not everyone communicates in the same way. Express the importance of good communication skills during your staff training and come up with a list of important skills as a group.

Establishing a common ground for body language and active listening in particular can bring everyone to the same page. Some people, for example, may be blissfully unaware that their lack of eye contact is seen as rude by their coworkers. Others may have a habit of interrupting out of excitement, which can cause the speaker to feel disrespected.

Even though some of these concepts may seem plain as day to you or other team members, not everyone has the same level of emotional intelligence, or the ability to recognize, apply and manage emotions. Low emotional intelligence can be improved, but it's also beneficial for people with high emotional intelligence to not read into the emotions of others too deeply. Oftentimes, no disrespect is intended from certain body language; it's just how someone communicates. In other words, the onus is on both parties to learn how to communicate effectively rather than simply expecting one person to catch up to the other person's level of emotional intelligence.

Encouraging Effective Communication

Effective communication occurs when both parties clearly understand their own needs and the other person's needs. Encourage team members to tell each other, "I need ... " and then to explain how and why they need it. For example, an employee who feels held back by a co-worker's late report might say, "I need a copy of your report in my email by the end of the day so that I can send the updated budget on Friday."

This is a far better solution than saying, "John, where is your report? I asked for it a week ago! I am going to be in so much trouble because of you!"

Effective communication is also polite in its word choice and intonation. Interrupting someone mid-thought is generally frowned upon, but so is talking so long or fast that no one else gets a chance to say something.

Reading a Situation and Gleaning Information

Effective decision making requires you to gather facts about the conflict, but you can sometimes understand what's going on just by reading a situation. For example, if two co-workers who are normally amicable suddenly stop talking to each other, something has happened. It's fine if they don't want to talk to each other outside of work, but they need to communicate as teammates while on the clock. You'll need to mediate to get to the bottom of it.

If two co-workers are in a relationship, things can get especially awkward at work because personal fights can spill over into the workplace. Consider creating a "personal relationships at work" policy that clearly states that personal relationships cannot get in the way of job performance and that HR must be notified of any personal relationships between co-workers. Outline the consequences of letting a relationship conflict affect work, such as a departmental transfer or possible termination.

You'll also want to understand other underlying motivations for why an employee acts a certain way. Sometimes, employees are worried that they'll lose their jobs because a co-worker isn't pulling his weight. Employees like feeling that their jobs are secure and that their hard work is recognized. You don't need to be a mind reader to know what's going on, but you should be observant about your employees' typical habits and behaviors in order to recognize a change.

Conflict Example: The Workhorse

Tension can build between employees when one feels like she is the "workhorse," or the one shouldering most of the work. Consider the example of a new employee named Claire who is extremely efficient in her work and can do the same tasks as her coworkers in less time. She eventually starts getting irritated that she is assigned more and more work to do in comparison. She even begins to fuss at her coworkers for being "slow" or "lazy".

Claire's coworker Greg does not appreciate being chided by Claire, especially since she isn't his manager, and also feels pressured to keep up with her even though he feels like he's already working as hard as he can. Greg's morale has lowered since Claire joined the team, and his absences have increased. Greg hasn't said anything to Claire about how her behavior affects him, but he has come to you to say that he is thinking about quitting. How do you mediate this situation?

Finding a Resolution for This Conflict

As a manager or business owner, it's important to recognize that a concern about job security may be underlining Claire's over-eager work performance. You may want to assure her that you appreciate her focus on productivity but that she should slow down to avoid burnout. Establish your expectations about how long her work should take. At the same time, she's crossed a line in harassing her co-workers for not matching her productivity, and that needs to immediately cease.

Greg could also use some assurance that he is a good worker even though he works at a slower pace than Claire. He may not have the assertiveness to tell Claire that her judgement about his work is unwarranted, but with you acting as a mediator, you can encourage Greg and Claire to openly communicate about their individual perceptions and needs.

Although Claire acted out of line, there won't always be someone "in the wrong" when a conflict occurs. All conflict situations are different, but you can achieve good outcomes by focusing on solving each person's needs.