How should you deal with conflict in the workplace

Conflict“Peace is not the absence of conflict but the presence of creative alternatives for responding to conflict – alternatives to passive or aggressive responses, alternatives to violence.” – Dorothy Thomson

Whenever a group of people work together, sooner or later conflict is bound to happen.

Two facts about conflict:

  • Managers spend at least 25% of their time resolving conflict (Reynolds & Kalish, 2002).
  • Many relatively successful supervisors and managers have a fear of conflict?

Where does conflict originate? Individuals or a group of people with conflicting needs, styles, perceptions, goals, pressures, roles and different personal values.

What are some of the consequences of unresolved conflict in the workplace?

  • Job dissatisfaction
  • Aggression and violence
  • Poor performance and avoidable errors
  • Reduction in client satisfaction
  • Absenteeism
  • Litigation
  • Passive-aggressive behaviour

When approaching conflict, one should be sensitive and respectful of the situation and people involved. Different types of conflict require different approaches.  Below, we discuss the four common approaches:

  1. Direct approach – approaches conflict head-on and may pull rank to end conflict
  2. Empathetic approach – emphasises feelings and would do anything to avoid a fight or any further conflict
  3. Analytical approach – focuses purely on facts and responds with silent treatment. Often withdraws before making a decision
  4. Diplomatic approach – prefers peace at any price. May give in to restore harmony

The real question should not be what is the best approach or style to deal with conflict, but rather what is the best approach or style in the specific situation? For each of the approaches, a few best practices should be kept in mind:

  • Direct approach – Honesty, clarity and acknowledging tough issues
  • Empathetic approach – reassuring, acknowledging emotions, allowing the expression of feelings and communicating empathy
  • Analytical approach – allow people space and time. Determine the root of the problem and stay focused on the facts
  • Diplomatic approach – Look to finding compromises, communicate tactfully and show flexibility

The challenge for managers dealing with conflict is to balance all approaches when seeking a resolution. This means stretching yourself to adapt to the needs of the staff and the issues at hand, as well as becoming competent at managing conflict.

A few tips:

  • Do not ignore conflict
  • Know the facts before attempting to resolve an issue
  • Determine the real problem first
  • Try to remain calm, objective and solution-orientated
  • Focus on the problem, not the people
  • Help staff refocus their attention on your team’s goals, mission and purpose
  • Determine your conflict management approach
  • If at all possible, try collaboration/compromise
  • Once the conflict has been resolved, follow-up to be sure that there are no additional issues

“If you feel dog tired at night, it may be because you’ve growled all day.”  - Anonymous

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