What is conflict management?
Understanding how to manage workplace conflict is a key leadership skill.
Conflicts in business are a natural part of the workplace, arising from differences of opinion and different perspectives on key business issues. Such conflicts are unavoidable so how can they be dealt with more effectively?
While not all conflict is negative (it can spark innovative thinking and creativity for example), if left unresolved, conflict can have an adverse effect on productivity and morale. It can also escalate, costing valuable time and money, and may resurface at a later date.
Conflict management is the ongoing process by which conflicts are identified and handled, fairly and efficiently. The goal is to minimise the potential negative impact that can arise from disagreements and encourage agreement and positive outcomes.
Not every dispute calls for the same response. In this factsheet, we will tackle the different strategies for handling conflicts and the situations for which they are most appropriate to enable a constructive response where a dispute arises.
The five conflict management techniques
According to Myers-Briggs, employees on average spend 2-3 hours a week dealing with conflict. This causes stress and may eventually cause them to leave the organisation.
In the 1970s two psychologists, Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann, set out to better understand conflict dynamics. They developed the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Modelling Tool to help leaders interpret conflict situations within their team and facilitate an effective solution.
According to this tool, there are five approaches to resolving conflicts in the workplace based on levels of assertiveness and cooperativeness. The range of approaches available depends on the immediacy of the problem, whether the priority is problem-solving or maintaining your long-term relationship with the opposing party, and your position in the power hierarchy.
The accommodating management style is about putting the other person’s needs before your own. An amicable and low assertiveness model, this style of management is used in situations where it is more important to safeguard the relationship than argue about the issue. Use an accommodating approach where you don’t care strongly about the issue, if prolonging the conflict is not worth your time, or if you think you might be wrong.
While it can appear weak, accommodating can be the best choice to resolve a minor conflict. It is highly cooperative on the part of the resolver but can lead to longer-term resentment.
Avoidance is not a substitute for proper resolution and represents a passive approach to conflict management. Where neither party takes action to address the issues involved in the conflict, it will remain unresolved and may resurface later.
This approach is best used on trivial problems or where the cost of confrontation and resolution is higher than the cost of living with the conflict. Ignoring the issue or removing or evading the people concerned can be an effective management resolution tool, allowing time and space for a cool-off period, but if used inappropriately it can make conflicts worse and make the manager seem weak and ineffectual.
Compromising demands assertiveness, goodwill and cooperation from all concerned. The main goal of this approach is to find common ground and protect relationships. All parties concede some aspects of their demands in the interest of reaching an agreement on the larger issue.
Best used when a quick, rather than perfect, solution is needed to complicated matters, compromise allows all parties to be heard and sets the scene for future collaborative working. It works best when all parties have equal power, however, the compromise reached can lead to resentment, especially if overused as a conflict resolution tactic.
While this approach produces the best long-term results because it solves the conflict, it is often the most difficult and time-consuming. It demands high levels of cooperation from all the parties who come together to talk through the conflict and negotiate a resolution that benefits everyone.
This approach is best used when everyone has the same power, it is vital to preserve the relationship between all parties or when the solution itself will have a significant impact.
The opposite of the accommodation approach, this assertive management style rejects compromise and attempts to win the conflict through dominance and power.
It is best used when you’re in a position of higher power, where other approaches to solving a dispute have failed and where immediate decisive action is required, and where an unpopular decision must be made. It can quickly resolve disputes, but it has a high risk of lowering morale and productivity.
What is conflict resolution?
While conflict management is a pragmatic ongoing process to address persistent issues that may never have a resolution, conflict resolution refers to resolving a dispute to the approval of one or both parties,
Conflict management is used in intractable disputes where there is no chance of resolution. Its purpose is to mitigate the impact of conflict and to find ways to enable people to cooperate effectively despite their differences.
Conflict resolution tends to be focussed on the short term and, by identifying and addressing the cause of dispute, its purpose is to find a positive outcome from a situation where there didn’t appear to be one initially. Ultimately, conflict resolution is about ending conflicts to facilitate a positive and productive working environment and may require the use of a third party as a mediator.
Why is conflict resolution important in the workplace?
Most people spend a large proportion of their lives at work and, as a result, the quality of the working environment has a significant impact on well-being. A supportive working environment and positive relationships can greatly enhance the experience of work. Relationships in the workplace affect the culture as well as the overall quality of work.
Unresolved conflicts can hinder performance and productivity, as well as damage the team dynamic. It can also result in high employee turnover. Research carried out by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development shows that conflict is very much a part of workplace life, with 35% of employees experiencing some form of interpersonal conflict over the past year. Common psychological or behavioural consequences included stress (48%), a drop in motivation (40%) or commitment (36%), with women more likely to report these impacts. Long-term impacts included low confidence and anxiety.
By contrast, effective conflict resolution helps maintain a positive work environment where team members feel valued and understood, promoting collaboration and ensuring issues are addressed before they escalate. Ultimately this leads to improved morale and satisfaction levels, increasing staff retention levels and enhancing team productivity to produce better business.
Examples of how to resolve conflict in the workplace
The impact of conflict can be harmful to individuals but not all conflict is bad. Situations where the parties involved can learn to work alongside each other are best managed rather than resolved.
Examples include where the conflict is:
- about making a common future vision a reality
- seeking the best solution through cooperative working or
- remains about the issue and doesn’t degenerate into attacks on a person’s character.
By contrast, ‘bad’ conflict can lower morale and productivity and the leader should step in and use conflict resolution skills to enable workers to pursue their duties free of the distraction and disruption the conflict has created.
Examples of ‘bad’ conflict include where the conflict:
- focuses on the past
- is polarising people by alienating or dividing them
- is concentrating on the perceived shortcomings of an individual, rather than on the specific issue causing the difficulties
These sorts of issues require a leader to find a solution to avoid escalation. Different conflicts may require different strategies to handle them but in resolving workplace conflict, the leader should:
- set the fundamental ground rules for discussion including the number of issues to be agreed
- directly address the underlying cause of the conflict
- remain calm and considered to reduce tension and de-escalate hostility for negotiations
- remain neutral, build rapport and establish a dialogue with both sides
- establish common ground (goals and expectations) and identify how the problem can be resolved – ask each party their view of the fair solution
- agree implementation of the solution and establish how to avoid a recurrence of the issue
- monitor and follow up on the agreement
Conflict management skills every leader needs to have
Conflict management is a key skill for business leaders, designed to ease friction and make your team an impactful one. Global brands such as Google and Apple are successful in large part because they successfully bring their teams together.
Leaders should be alert for situations in which conflict could emerge and be ready to implement preventative measures. However, they must also be able to identify instances where conflict could be productive and manage this in a fair and ethical manner.
Useful conflict management skills for leaders include:
- Active listening – enables understanding and empathy with everyone’s perspective to determine the true source of a conflict
- Problem-solving and flexibility – helps discover the best compromise and prevent recurrence of issues through informed use of resources and innovative methods for conflict resolution
- Communication – facilitates clear expectations of actions and choices, enables information to be verified, questions to be asked and expressions of opinions to avoid conflicts in the future
- Collaboration – develops a team culture founded on accountability and trust. Being proactive, sharing verbal validation and asking for input from all team members promotes good morale and decreases conflicts long-term
- Stress management mechanisms – managing your own stress to maintain positivity and avoid conflicts from misunderstandings or personal frustration
- Positive attitude – showing understanding and using humour to diffuse pressures, when appropriate. Treating others with integrity and respect to encourage collaboration or find a compromise
- Emotional intelligence – enables the development of solutions through empathy and recognition of colleagues’ motivations, viewpoints and emotions to avoid misunderstandings
- Neutrality and impartiality – encourages everyone to share their opinions and use all perspectives to generate a compromise that benefits everyone. Be clear, transparent, and honest
- Patience – remaining calm, especially when others have heightened emotions, allowing time and space for others to calm down and think logically.
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