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Five Strategies for Managing Conflict in the Workplace

26 Aug

Conflict in the workplace can arise from many sources, from philosophically grounded differences of opinion regarding business strategy to simple clashes between strong personalities. Conflict itself is not always a bad thing: Important business decisions are often made as a result of competing ideas, and disagreement can help expose potential problems before it is too late. But whatever a business conflict's source, a savvy manager will handle it with a well-reasoned, clearly defined plan to ensure it does not grow to an unmanageable intensity that can have negative consequences for the organization.

We've outlined five important strategies below to keep in mind when dealing with conflict in the workplace. By respecting the roots of business conflicts and guiding them toward productive resolutions, you can ensure all members of your team can work together as smoothly and functionally as possible.

Always Acknowledge Tension

There's no way around it: Conflict can be uncomfortable, especially if it is occurring between two coworkers with whom you must interact on a daily basis. It can be quite tempting for managers to adopt a strategy of ignorance when their employees are butting heads, to try to diffuse tense situations by projecting a false air of calm agreement onto their department. But ignoring conflict in the workplace in this matter is not a real solution; it allows bad feelings to fester and can let easily resolvable situations spiral out of control.

Acknowledging conflict and facing it head-on is a far more effective way of mitigating it, both in terms of preserving relationships with and among your team members and in the interest of bringing conflict to a productive resolution.1 Open, direct communication with your team members preserves their trust in and respect for you as a manager, and can lead them to communicate more straightforwardly with each other as well. And by acknowledging and working through business conflicts rather than ignoring them, you open up the possibility that they can result in productive, positive new directions for your team and your company.

Listen Attentively and Ask Incisive Questions

Once you have acknowledged that there is indeed a conflict in the workplace that needs to be addressed, it is important to engage with disputing parties openly, fairly and attentively. Strive to be an active listener to both sides of the conflict. Demonstrate positive body language to indicate your engagement, and ask thoughtful and provocative—but always respectful—questions to both help get to the bottom of the conflict and to show each employee that you care about their side of the story.2

For instance, business conflicts may often appear to trace back to a single inciting incident in a way that can obscure deeper roots to a disagreement between the parties. So while a strong resolution may begin with identifying a conflict's apparent source, your intervention can be more effective and have longer-lasting positive effects if you learn to look beyond this incident to a lengthier history of tension beyond those involved.3 By probing a bit deeper in this manner, you can encourage your employees to examine their own mindset more reflectively than they otherwise might.

Outline Priorities and Potential Positive Outcomes

To turn conflict resolution in a positive direction, it can be helpful to try to direct those in disagreement away from what it is that is upsetting them. Encourage them to focus instead on what their goals are, what potential outcome or outcomes to their conflict would be best for them and for the entire company in their eyes.

One way of promoting positivity and setting reasonable expectations is to ask conflicting parties to outline and rank their priorities. Have them order their desired outcomes in terms of how strongly they feel about achieving them, from "must have" to "can do without," as well as with respect to how quickly they would like to see them reached.4 This can reveal potential sites of compromise between the two parties who may otherwise struggle to communicate, and can help establish a timeline for achieving a mutually satisfactory resolution to the conflict.

Don't Just Compromise—Collaborate

Compromise is often upheld conceptually as the ideal way to resolve a conflict, in the workplace or in any setting. However, compromises—agreements by all involved parties to sacrifice some of their desires for the greater good—often result in lingering dissatisfaction and resentment. An alternative to compromise is collaboration, a more intensive process of communication and cooperation aimed at engineering a solution that is satisfying to everyone rather than one that they all find in some way deficient.5

You should be aware, however, that collaboration requires a significant commitment of time and resources by multiple parties. As such, it may not be an ideal solution for business conflicts with particularly low stakes (over the use of office supplies, for instance), or for ones with serious urgency behind them to achieve a workable solution in the short term.6

Seek Outside Help When Necessary

While it may seem like effective leadership demands that you be able to solve all of your team's problems, it is important to know when to take a step back and ask for assistance for issues you cannot resolve on your own. Some conflict in the workplace requires the assistance of a third party, which can mean involving your company's human resources department or as drastic a step as inviting intervention from an outside legal counsel.

If a conflict appears intense enough that it could result in the loss of talent for an organization, or if the disagreement turns personal, HR should be brought into the process to help diffuse the situation.7 And if potential legal issues arise, such as allegations of harassment or discrimination, outside help must be brought in to protect the organization as it works toward a solution. A third-party investigator, mediator or attorney may be necessary to resolve these most toxic and potentially dangerous forms of conflict in the workplace.

Effective Management Starts at William & Mary

All managers will have to deal with conflict among their team members at some point during their careers. Renaissance managers are able to use their diverse business talents to guide their teams in productive, mutually satisfying directions that improve not only the environment in the workplace, but the work produced by the organization as well.

If you're ready to master the art of efficient, effective management, consider the Online MBA from William & Mary's Raymond A. Mason School of Business. Learn more about the impact this revolutionary degree can have on your career.

1. Retrieved on July 30, 2019, from forbes.com/sites/williamcraig/2019/01/01/how-the-best-leaders-resolve-workplace-conflicts/
2. Retrieved on July 30, 2019, from nbcnews.com/id/44138248/ns/business-us_business/t/-step-approach-solving-workplace-conflict/
3. Retrieved on July 30, 2019, from amanet.org/articles/the-five-steps-to-conflict-resolution/
4. Retrieved on July 30, 2019, from forbes.com/sites/biancamillercole/2019/03/06/conflictresolution/v
5. Retrieved on July 30, 2019, from hbr.org/2007/11/how-to-manage-conflict
6. Retrieved on July 30, 2019, from smallbusiness.chron.com/5-conflict-management-strategies-16131.html
7. Retrieved on July 30, 2019, from shrm.org/hr-today/news/hr-magazine/pages/070815-conflict-management.aspx