Success in business often is contingent on the ability of leaders to resolve internal or external conflict. The key to conflict resolution in any organization is to recognize that conflict is inevitable, and to have a plan in place to manage it.
The plan should be clearly stated and easy to understand. It also should be flexible enough to adapt to all forms of interpersonal workplace conflict.
The formulation of an organization’s plan for conflict resolution and management begins with understanding the potential sources of conflict. Any time two or more people interact, the potential for conflict exists.
Here are a few of the many possible sources of workplace conflict:
- Interaction among employees
- Interaction between a supervisor and an employee
- Interaction between a customer and an employee
- Interaction between a vendor and a company representative
- Disagreements among organizational leaders about strategy or resource allocation
Conflict does not necessarily require enmity between two people. Misunderstandings, which often are a result of poor communication, can stir frustration and give rise to workplace conflict that can disrupt the company culture and lead to bad feelings between co-workers.
One more factor should not be overlooked: Conflict, when managed professionally, might not necessarily cause long-term problems and could be beneficial in some situations. Internalized frustration can simmer and cause more problems down the line than an open, respectful conversation about differences of opinion.
What that means is one of the most important elements of conflict resolution is for organizational leaders to encourage a workplace culture of professionalism, openness and respect. That requires foresight and planning, and if your organization publishes an employee handbook, it should include the protocol for handling workplace relationship behavior that ranges from minor dustups to impassioned shouting matches.
Conflict Benefits and Drawbacks
According to a 2015 report from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), conflict can be “normal and healthy.” It often arises because of differences of opinion or different priorities, and successful resolution of this type of conflict can be a catalyst for constructive change or growth.
One way conflict can benefit a company is to lead to a logical compromise about resource allocation. For instance, if two department managers are competing for a portion of the organization’s travel budget and are unable to come to an agreement, a director or vice president could mediate by asking for written requests providing details about how that travel benefits the company.
Not all conflict resolution comes down to a decision by a supervisor, however. In most cases, the true benefit of conflict management is derived from a deeper understanding – and better working relationship – between the principles once the conflict has been resolved.
For example, if two employees in the same department who are up for a promotion also have a personality conflict, the chance of workplace conflict intensifies. This hypothetical situation has the potential to cause serious problems, but it presents an opportunity for a manager to remind the parties of three rules of managing conflict called “sacrosanct” in a 2013 report by the World Economic Forum:
- Don’t make it personal. Conflict should remain based on specific issues, not on an opinion about someone’s integrity.
- Keep it in the box. Compartmentalize conflict; do not allow one conflict to spill over to other issues. Do not weaponize conflict out of spite.
- Move on. When the resolution comes, live by it, even if it did not favor you.
These three rules can be summed up by one, simple piece of workplace wisdom: Be professional.
Workplace Conflict: Manage It Wisely
According to author Travis Bradberry, writing on the World Economic Forum website, five aspects of conflict management should be practiced in the workplace:
- Be honest (but not brutally honest).
- State facts (rather than leading with feelings).
- Try to empathize (rather than reflexively defending your position).
- Accept responsibility where warranted (don’t just point fingers).
- Boldly assert your position (but be smart about it).
The SHRM gets into more depth with its list of conflict resolution tactics. Here is that organization’s step-by-step guide for helping co-workers resolve a difference of opinion or other type of workplace conflict:
- Up front, make sure to remind the principles to be respectful, listen and try to understand the other’s point of view.
- Ask conflict participants to describe the problem and desired outcomes, using “I” statements instead of “you” statements.
- Get participants to state the opposing viewpoint.
- Give a summary of the problem from your perspective.
- Brainstorm solutions with all interested parties.
- Find common ground on ideas that all agree will not work.
- Create a list of potential solutions.
- Ask the participants to research the solutions.
- Assign next steps and schedule a follow-up meeting.
- Get the principles to shake hands and/or thank each other for working together to resolve the issue.
If an internal conflict cannot be resolved by rational conversation and collaboration, it might be time to involve the human resources department. No manager should allow workplace conflict to linger and create a toxic atmosphere.
To be successful, managers in business must develop keen conflict resolution skills. An online MBA with a concentration in Management from Jacksonville University’s Davis College of Business provides meaningful insight into the principles of leadership and ethics, as well as decision making skills, human resources and organizational change.