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Conflict Management

What is Conflict Management?

Conflict management is the practice of being able to identify and handle conflicts sensibly, fairly, and efficiently. Since conflicts in a business are a natural part of the workplace, it is important that there are people who understand conflicts and know how to resolve them. This is important in today's market more than ever. Everyone is striving to show how valuable they are to the company they work for and at times, this can lead to disputes with other members of the team.

Types of Conflict Management

Conflicts happen. How an employee responds and resolves conflict will limit or enable that employe's success. 

Here are five conflict styles that a manager will follow according to Kenneth W. Thomas and Ralph H. Kilmann:

1. Collaborating conflict management style:

A combination of being assertive and cooperative, those who collaborate attempt to work with others to identify a solution that fully satisfies everyone’s concerns. In this style, which is the opposite of avoiding, both sides can get what they want and negative feelings are minimized. “Collaborating works best when the long-term relationship and outcome are important—for example, planning for integrating two departments into one, where you want the best of both in the newly formed department,” Dr Benoliel says.

2. Competing conflict management style:

Those who compete are assertive and uncooperative and willing to pursue one’s own concerns at another person’s expense. Dr Benoliel explains using this style works when you don’t care about the relationship but the outcome is important, such as when competing with another company for a new client. But, she cautions, “Don’t use competing inside your organization; it doesn’t build relationships.”

3. Avoiding conflict management style:

Those who avoid conflict tend to be unassertive and uncooperative while diplomatically sidestepping an issue or simply withdrawing from a threatening situation. “Use this when it is safer to postpone dealing with the situation or you don’t have as great concern about the outcome, such as if you have a conflict with a co-worker about their ethics of using FaceTime on the job.”

4. Accommodating conflict management style:

The opposite of competing, there is an element of self-sacrifice when accommodating to satisfy the other person. While it may seem generous, it could take advantage of the weak and cause resentment. “You can use accommodating when you really don’t care a lot about the outcome but do want to preserve or build the relationship,” Dr. Benoliel says, “such as going out for lunch with the boss and agreeing, ‘If you want to go for Thai food for lunch, that’s OK with me.’”

5. Compromising conflict management style:

This style aims to find an expedient, mutually acceptable solution that partially satisfies both parties in the conflict while maintaining some assertiveness and cooperativeness. “This style is best to use when the outcome is not crucial and you are losing time; for example, when you want to just make a decision and move on to more important things and are willing to give a little to get the decision made,” Dr Benoliel says. “However,” she adds, “be aware that no one is really satisfied.”

Best practices for Conflict Management

Conflict Management

1. Be aware of conflict

Keep your eyes and ears open for changes in workplace climate and any early signs of developing conflict. Don’t turn a blind eye to symptoms of hidden conflict. Conflict can only be safely ignored if it is momentary and unlikely to escalate. Ignoring conflict may be an easy option initially, but in most cases, it does not help and will create a more difficult situation to resolve later. 

2. Take a considered and rational approach to conflict 

Stay calm and ensure that you are able to take a considered, rational and impartial approach to the situation. If you are personally involved, you may need to ask someone else to handle the issue. Avoid the temptation to adopt the instinctive reactions of ‘fight or flight’. Neither of these approaches is constructive: ‘flight’ avoids the issue and doesn’t resolve the conflict; ‘fight’ provokes greater conflict and may intimidate the parties involved. Avoid passive behaviour - do not take an apologetic stance and accept all points of view whether they are right or wrong. Similarly, avoid aggressive behaviour – do not take an authoritarian approach and fail to listen to reasoned argument Instead, aim to take an assertive stance, while treating all parties with respect and listening to all points of view. Take care with your use of language and your body language while dealing with people involved in conflict situations. Careless or thoughtless comments can cause offence and exacerbate the conflict. Listen carefully to any evidence offered and take notes. Most importantly, be neutral and focus on the facts. 

3. Investigate the situation 

Take time to find out what has happened, who is involved, how people are feeling, and what the issues are. Don’t prejudge the issue or jump to conclusions. Speak individually and confidentially to those involved and listen actively to make sure you understand their point of view. This can be checked by summarising what they have said and reflecting it back to them. Try to identify any underlying causes of conflict which may not be immediately obvious. For example, a member of staff may be in apparent conflict with colleagues, while the root cause is their perception that a supervisor is treating them unfairly. Be aware that those involved may have differing perceptions of the same situation. Avoid being pulled into the middle of the argument and taking sides. 

4. Decide how to tackle the conflict

Having examined the situation, decide what kind of action is appropriate. 

Ask yourself: 

  • Is this a serious matter or relatively trivial? Could it become serious?
  • Should organisational discipline or grievance procedures be invoked?
  • Is the matter within your sphere of authority or should it be referred to a superior?
  • Are any legal issues involved? In situations where the law comes into play (e.g. the Equality Act 2010) it is advisable to consult with your HR department before you take any action
  • Would the participation of a trade union representative be appropriate?
  • Would it be best to make a ruling on the issue yourself, or would an informal gathering to discuss the problem be helpful? Will the parties accept your ruling?
  • Is time needed for heated emotions to subside before moving forward?

The answers to these questions will help you decide what action to take. For all sorts of reasons, there may be situations where formal processes, including legal proceedings, may need to be invoked – if in doubt, consult your HR department. However, many issues can be resolved without resorting to costly legal cases. 

In most cases a mutually agreed mediated solution will be more effective than an imposed solution which may leave all parties dissatisfied. Consider how you can get those involved together to exchange views and explore the issues. Do you have access to mediators (formal or informal)?

 5. Let everyone have their say 

If you are able to get the parties together, you may be able to reach a satisfactory solution. Take a positive, friendly and assertive approach to the meeting and set ground rules for the session. Assertive behaviour will encourage the parties to express their thoughts honestly and openly, understand the causes of conflict and All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher. Find solutions. Make sure that everyone has the chance to explain their point of view and concerns. People will be more willing to relinquish entrenched positions and consider compromise if they feel that their point of view has been understood and their concerns taken on board

6. Identify options and agree on a way forward This is the most important and often the most difficult part of the process. 

The following steps may be helpful in reaching agreement: 

  • Create an atmosphere where all parties are able to speak openly and honestly and where they can make concessions without losing face. 
  • Acknowledge emotional issues as these are often at the heart of it and thus will need to be resolved. However, don’t allow them to take over. 
  • Consider carefully the extent to which you need to control the meeting and intervene in the discussion.
  • Explore the reasons for the disagreement.
  • Identify any misconceptions or misunderstandings which are blocking progress.
  • Encourage the parties to examine their own positions and identify any common ground with others.
  • Look for points which may be negotiable and seek win-win solutions which take the interests of all parties into account.
  • Ask the parties to put forward preferred solutions.
  • Allow time for reflection. 
  • Assess each option and help the parties to agree on which represents the best way forward. 
  • Secure the commitment of all parties to any agreement and agree on a review point.

If no progress is made, a period of reflection may help, but ultimately it may be necessary to bring in another manager or to consider external assistance from a specialist in mediation, ADR (Alternative Dispute Resolution) or arbitration. In these difficult cases, where complete consensus is impossible, you should aim for a way forward that is acceptable to all, even if it is not the preferred option for all parties involved. 

7. Implement what has been agreed 

It is important to ensure that everyone is clear about what has been decided and takes personal responsibility for any actions which have been agreed. In some cases, a written agreement may be appropriate. Be careful here if there is any embarrassment of any of the parties involved, for example, if it involves public apologies. 

8. Evaluate how things are going 

Don’t assume that the issue has been finally resolved. Continue to keep an eye on the situation and evaluate how well the solution is working. If the problem reappears it may be necessary to take further action. 

9. Consider preventative strategies for the future 

Think about the lessons that can be learned from the conflict and the way it was handled. What could be done better next time? How could you develop your conflict management skills? You may wish to consider training or other forms of professional development on influencing, mediation or dispute resolution techniques for yourself or a colleague.

Looking at the broader context, consider what action can be taken to improve working relationships and encourage a culture of open communication and consultation. Fostering a sense of group identity and encouraging employees to see themselves as working towards a common cause is a good way of lessening conflict in the future. Consider whether an organisational procedure for dispute resolution or mediation is needed. Think about whether there is something about the way the unit works that encourage this conflicting behaviour and if this can be ‘fixed’.