What is Conflict Management?
Conflict management is the practice of being able to identify and handle conflicts sensibly, fairly, and efficiently. It is the process of dealing with (perceived) incompatibilities or disagreements arising from, for example, diverging opinions, objectives, and needs.
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.
What are the common conflict management styles?
This conflict management style produces the best long-term results, but it is frequently the most difficult and time-consuming to achieve.The needs and desires of each party are considered, and a win-win solution is found so that everyone is satisfied.
This frequently entails all parties sitting down together, discussing the conflict, and negotiating a solution together. The collaborating conflict management style is used when it is critical to maintain all parties' relationships or when the solution itself will have a significant impact.
The competing conflict management style rejects compromise and does not give in to the opinions or desires of others. One party is adamant about how they believe a situation should be handled and will not back down until they get their way.
This can be in situations where morals require a specific course of action, when there isn't time to try a different solution, or when an unpopular decision must be made. It can quickly resolve disputes, but it has a high risk of lowering morale and productivity.
This conflict management style seeks to reduce conflict by ignoring it, removing the conflicting parties, or evading it in some way. Team members who are in disagreement can be removed from the project, deadlines pushed, or people reassigned to other departments.
If a cool-down period would be beneficial or if you need more time to consider your stance on the conflict itself, this can be an effective conflict resolution style. However, avoidance should not be used in place of proper conflict resolution; putting off conflict indefinitely can and will lead to more (and larger) conflicts down the road.
The accommodating conflict management style is all about putting the needs of the other party ahead of one's own. You let them 'win' and have their way. Accommodation is used when you don't care as much about the issue as the other person, if prolonging the conflict isn't worth your time, or if you believe you're wrong.
This option is about keeping the peace, not putting in more effort than is necessary, and knowing when to pick your battles. While it may appear to be a weak option, accommodation can be the best way to resolve a minor conflict and move on to more important issues. This style is highly cooperative on the resolver's part, but it can lead to resentment.
This conflict management style seeks a middle ground by asking both parties to give up some aspects of their desires in order to reach an agreement. This style is sometimes referred to as "lose-lose," because both parties will have to give up a few things in order to reach an agreement on the larger issue.
When there is a time constraint or when a solution simply needs to happen rather than be perfect, this is used. Compromise can breed resentment, especially when used excessively as a conflict resolution tactic, so use it sparingly.
Best practices to manage conflict
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 considerate 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’.
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. 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.
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.
4. Decide how to tackle the conflict
Having examined the situation, decide what kind of action is appropriate.
- 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 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.
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 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.
- Acknowledge emotional issues as these are often at the heart of it and thus will need to be resolved.
- 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’.