We Are All Mediators: How to Solve Conflict in the Workplace
Most employees and managers have a story about a conflict in the workplace that got out of hand. Sometimes, the events remain in the past, but sometimes they take root and lead to rifts within an office.
Cold exchanges are made in the breakroom, two employees avoid eye contact in meetings, and projects slow to a crawl because of a breakdown in communication.
This all can be avoided with solid conflict resolution techniques.
Next time a problem flares up in the office, follow this method to identify the problems, find solutions and work toward fostering a positive team environment.
Conflict Occurs in Every Workplace
Even the most congenial offices face workplace conflicts throughout the year.
A.J. O’Connor Associates reports that American employees spend an average of 2.8 hours per week managing conflict, which results in $435 billion in lost productivity annually. The differences between a cooperative and a toxic office lie in how long problems take to get solved.
However, the survey also shows that conflict can be an opportunity for growth. In fact, 75 percent of employees said they have experienced positive outcomes from a well-managed conflict that might not have occurred without the conflict in the first place.
The key phrase here is “well-managed conflict,” as so many problems within the workplace are handled poorly.
The Two Types of Workplace Conflict
Before you can start to solve conflicts in your office, you need to know the types of conflict you’re dealing with.
In a study of 2,100 UK employees, CIPD found that 38 percent of employees experienced some sort of interpersonal conflict at work in the past year, and 25 percent said conflict is a normal part of the workplace. The team at CIPD then divides these incidents into two types: isolated disputes and ongoing conflict relationships.
While an isolated dispute occurs because of an event and can may only last a few days, ongoing conflict relationships can last for months and build with every new problem.
The type of conflict you’re dealing with will dictate how you solve the problem, but understand that they aren’t mutually exclusive conflicts — an isolated dispute handled poorly can lead to an ongoing conflict.
Addressing Conflict is a Key Management Skill
Regardless of the level or severity of the issue, conflict needs to be addressed. The question is how it should be addressed.
The leadership team doesn’t have to step into every disagreement, but they should be able to in order to prevent problems from growing out of control.
“Leaders and employees who are not trained in conflict resolution often do not understand that conflict can be resolved as quickly as it comes on,” Dr. Bill Howatt writes at The Globe and Mail. “But when they are not resolved in a collaborative way and instead are left to fester, then the conflict has the opportunity to escalate.”
Howatt writes that conflict is a natural part of the workplace and can lead to important changes and a better understanding through communication.
Glenn Llopis agrees with Howatt. He says the tension must be addressed head-on, and management shouldn’t assume that the employee’s frustration will subside over time.
“Adversity is very big when it is all you can see,” he writes. “But it is very small when in the presence of all else that surrounds you.”
Acknowledging your colleague’s or your employee’s perspective (even if they’re still not getting their way) can validate their feelings and help both of you move toward a solution.
Evaluating the Severity of the Conflict
Before you address the conflict, you should evaluate the working relationship between the two parties in question. This will help you decide whether you should get involved or step back.
“In all of these cases, leaders need to consider two basic questions,” Tom Fox writes at the Washington Post. “How important is the issue? And, how important is this relationship? Your answers will determine whether to let it slide or try to resolve it.”
Fox highlights the relationship between employees and managers as an example. This is a highly important relationship, as both parties will have to keep working together even after the issue is solved. In this case, a third-party mediator (like a co-worker or higher-level employee) could help create a platform for communication.
Five Steps to Mediate Workplace Conflict
When mediating between two parties, it helps to have an established framework to use in order to fairly evaluate both sides. By being fair and procedural, you reduce the risk of isolated incidents becoming ongoing relationship conflicts.
Dr. Beverly Flaxington has created a five-step sample model that you can apply to most conflicts:
- Specify the desired outcome: Let each party explain what they’re hoping to achieve.
- Highlight and categorize the obstacles: Let each side voice their problems with the other’s goals or solutions.
- Identify the stakeholders: Talk about who will be affected by the decision outside of this meeting.
- Brainstorm possible alternatives: Find ways to meet in the middle or use a third option to solve the conflict.
- Take action based on the solution: By taking immediate action, you show that the discussion is over and there’s no point fighting against the decision.
Again, by giving both parties a fair chance to lobby for their choices, you’re validating your team members and treating them with respect.
Emotion and Fact Are Often Hard to Separate
“Humans are creatures of emotion,” writes Reuben Yonatan, CEO of GetVoIP. “If you haven’t already realized how combative people can become when they think their ideas are under attack, you’ll learn soon enough within a team setting.”
Most, if not all, conflict will be tied to some sort of emotion. Your goal as a leader is to separate the facts from the emotion and make the best possible decision.
For example, an employee might fight back against a new process because he says it’s too complex, but his real issue could be a fear of change or disengagement within the company. One incident is a symptom of a larger problem.
“When we are under stress, we revert to our primitive fight or flight response — the brain doesn’t appreciate that it’s not a lion attack but an irritable colleague,” Macarena Mata writes at HRZone.
“In very quick succession, effective communication becomes less effective, assumptions become ‘facts,’ psychological insecurities become our platform of communication and suddenly destructive workplace conflict erupts.”
Tapping Into Workplace Emotional Intelligence
The fact that conflict is so closely tied to emotion highlights the value of emotional intelligence in the workplace. Emotional intelligence is your ability to accurately track your emotions as they happen and evaluate the emotions of others. It is your ability to control how you react in certain situations while understanding why others might react differently.
Dr. Travis Bradberry reports that emotional intelligence (the foundation for traits like empathy, change tolerance and problem solving) is one of the most useful workplace skills and accounts for 58 percent of success in most positions.
He found that 90 percent of effective performers have high levels of emotional intelligence, but only 20 percent of the bottom performers do.
Learning to Recognize When You’re the Problem
In an article for She Owns It, Karen Doniere admits that it’s not a comfortable feeling to realize that there are emotional problems, cultural differences or generational rifts at the root of a problem — especially when it’s your own biases holding the team back.
However, if you’re mature enough to accept responsibility for the conflict and move forward, you can prevent the other parties from having a long-term personal conflict with you.
Identifying emotions can actually help managers resolve conflicts. By isolating the facts, they can focus on the core issues at hand instead of getting involved in personal disagreements.
Overcoming Your Fear of Conflict
The modern workplace has trained us to avoid conflict.
Employees worry about losing their jobs if they confront problems, and many managers are likewise scared to face issues and address their employees’ concerns. But the best managers know how to address conflicts in a productive manner.
“When you avoid conflict, you’re actually putting the focus squarely on yourself,” Amy Jen Su writes at the Harvard Business Review.
Avoiding conflict means your fear motivates you — whether it’s the fear of having an idea shot down or the fear of causing tension in the workplace. This fear ultimately makes you an ineffective employee because the needs of the business will always be second to your own personal discomfort.
Creating a Conflict Discussion Roadmap
Rhonda Scharf has also seen fear paralyze her co-workers. She knew one man who almost lost his marriage because he wouldn’t communicate his problems to his wife. He would write entire conversations in his head addressing the issue but couldn’t bring himself to open his mouth!
To abate these fears, Scharf created a four-step process that people can follow when they want to address conflict in a way that opens the door for healthy discussion:
- State the issue in one or two non-emotional, fact-based sentences.
- Make your first statement, and then pause to let the other person address it.
- Figure out your ideal solution before the confrontation.
- Focus on the real issues of the confrontation.
Team members who fear conflict can mentally write out what they want to say following this process to temper the messiness of confrontation. In many ways, voicing your problems is a learning process. The more you do it, the better you will get.
The Dangers of Avoiding Office Conflict
Even the best conflict-resolution managers avoid difficult conversations sometimes. However, difficult issues need to be addressed for the health of the company.
James Kerr notes that when management refuses to acknowledge conflict, the results are often diminished teamwork, reduced productivity and unresolved conflicts that ultimately can compel your top employees to leave.
“Those that can will move on to greener pastures when their current work environment becomes unbearable,” he writes. This often leaves management with just the people who benefit from the status quo. Companies constantly fight to recruit top talent, but a passive management style that doesn’t stop conflict could leave you with the worst people, not the best.
Conflict Without Leadership Can Cause Bullying
The Trade Union Congress reports that 29 percent of workers have been bullied at work. Nearly half of these respondents said it has affected their performance along with their mental health.
By failing to address conflict in a fair and timely manner, you could be contributing to a culture of bullying within your office. Even if the bullies don’t realize the effects they have on their co-workers, your bullied employees will certainly see that you’re not doing anything to address the problem.
Ignoring Conflict Won’t Make it Go Away
Failing to address conflict doesn’t mean it isn’t there; it just means the conflict is occurring somewhere outside of your control.
“Organizations in which managers try to keep a lid on differences — of opinion, personal style, and cultural preferences — are usually riven with the undercurrents of unproductive conflict,” Muthu Subramanian writes.
When leaders encourage teams to address differences instead of suppressing, both parties can come up with opportunities to overcome and even embrace challenges.
Bullying, turnover, lost employees and a toxic workplace; is all of that worth giving into the fear of addressing conflict?
By improving your conflict-resolution skills, you will be able to solve more isolated problems and create a more positive work environment for your team. Furthermore, you will grow as a manager and continue to be an asset within your company.