Overcome Conflict in the Workplace

Build stronger teams by working with people's differences

Conflict in the workplace absorbs a great deal of time for all leaders. And much of that conflict comes not just from strong personalities, but also because of the diversity of:

  • skills
  • knowledge
  • experiences
  • values
  • attitudes and
  • viewpoints

people bring to the table. This diversity can often achieve far more than a group who are of very similar backgrounds.

Having a variety of opinions and viewpoints on a team can be one of its greatest strengths, but it can also have the potential to turn the workplace into a powder keg!

We all have our:

  • own points of view
  • ways of viewing a situation
  • ways of wanting to be communicated with
  • ways of wanting to be led and managed
  • methods of resolving problems

and given the right circumstances, these different needs and differences in perspective can escalate into full-blown conflict.

How you, the Leader, handle the inevitable frictions that come up, will decide whether these conflicts end up strengthening the team as a whole or causing a collapse.


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The critical question is how do you productively steer conflict? How do you enable your team members to embrace differences, and resolve them effectively ... or at least with minimum damage? 

Any conflict in your workplace and/or team needs to be addressed; it's just a matter of how. You need to have a plan before getting involved, lest you be drawn into an argument and end up making things worse.

Before stepping in to help in any conflict resolution efforts, it is critical to understand that you cannot ignore:

  • Emotions - which are likely to be running high
  • That people have different perspectives on what has happened or caused the conflict
  • Each party will believe that their view is more right than the others

The best way to begin resolving a conflict is to understand the viewpoints of those involved. The four-stage process below is a form of mediation, which can help team members to handle conflict:

Step 1:
Get Agreement That There Is A Problem And It Needs Addressing

People tend to ignore the early warning signs of a brewing conflict; passing it off as not critical or just one of the niggles of being in a team environment and having to compromise.

If you feel that there is a chance that the tension, is more than a healthy debate, or difference of opinions, (that the tension is - or could be about to become - destructive and won't move the team and/or the topic at hand forward), you should raise it with the team as soon as you become aware of it.

Don't ignore the early warning signs of a brewing conflict

Ask the team to stop, and take a health check: "Do we agree there is tension in the team? Is the tension, about to escalate into something that could have long-term negative impact or consequences?"

If there is agreement that there is a problem - your next vital step is to get everyone who is involved in the conflict, to agree to work together to resolve it. This is an excellent time to remind the team members of the team's norms.

Remind them that unchecked emotions are likely to be fueling actions and behaviors that don't necessarily support the team in achieving its goals.

Step 2:
Visualize & Align With The Future

Everything in this world started, with a thought and belief that it could be created. So ignore this crucial step of visualizing at your peril!

This is an opportunity to get the conflicted parties working together. By starting with this step first of the conflict resolution process, you are actually moving toward your end goal; getting them to work together. Get the parties to answer these three questions:

  • What is the ultimate result you want for the TASK at hand? (i.e. what are we trying to achieve.)
  • What do you want for this RELATIONSHIP? (i.e. how do we want to feel about each other)
  • How do you want to show up as an individual in this situation (REPUTATION)? (i.e what do you want to see plastered on t.v/internet/radio/newspapers about you)

The third question is often best answered by the individual him or herself. However, the answers to the first two questions should be drafted and posted by the team. Your aim here is to give them a goal that they are visualizing and working toward. An outcome that you can keep referring back to when things get heated.

Practical Side of Visualizing: Create Norms

Keeping in mind that emotions may be running high. An entry level task - before you get to work on the conflict - is to create some norms that will help keep you each on track if emotions should start to outpace good decisions/choices that lead to the resolution of the problem.

If things are so badly fractured between the parties that they can't even agree to norms (or the visualizing of the future) to help them through the conflict resolution process - you may need to step in and impose them. However, only do this as a final resort.

Step 3:
Understand the Situation

With your team prepared to face up to the conflict in the workplace, you can then move on to understanding the situation at hand, as well as the point of view held by each team member.

Sort Out Fact From Story

Whatever the nature of the conflict in the workplace, whether there are factions within your team supporting one side or the other, or even in the case where it is each man or woman for him or herself, everyone needs the opportunity to make their position clear and feel that 'the other side' understands their perspective.

We all create stories about why people do the things they do. Sometimes the stories can be accurate. Unfortunately, more often than not they are filled with inaccuracies, judgments, labels and more often than not self-serving distortions of the facts.

Not only do we create stories about others we create stories about ourselves. Stories that justify and excuse our own poor behavior. (Read more about stories people create in their mind and how the escalate conflict in the workplace.

As the mediator in this situation, it is your role to help the two parties sift

fact from fiction ...

truth from opinion ...

assumptions from reality.
Use the FAIR grid to help you identify when assumptions are being made

As each side lays out their perspective of the situation, be mindful to watch out for whenever someone is stating an opinion not based in fact. Look out for people labeling, making an assumption, or judging another person's behavior. When labeling, assumptions, and judgments are happening there is little chance of a satisfactory resolution resulting.

So call it when you hear it! Ask the individual who made the statement to come back to a fact-based discussion. 

This is where the preparation of norms, beforehand, become your very best friend! You can refer back to them and say something like "We agreed, that in this conversation we would ensure that we stick to facts, and kept our personal opinions and judgments out of the conversation .... "

Discover, in more detail, the skills on how to do this step in the training "Successful Feedback"

Allow plenty of time, so that everyone feels they have had the opportunity to be heard, understood and treated with respect. As the leader and mediator in the meeting, it is your role to make sure that this happens.

Step 4:
Reach Agreement

Once everyone understands each other's position, the team as a whole can then determine how to proceed to a course of action that gets the job/task done well and keeps relationships on the up and up.

If there is trouble reaching a consensus agreement among the members of the team, then negotiation techniques like Nominal Group Technique, Multi-Voting or Win-Win Negotiation may be warranted, to keep the process moving forward.

It'll likely get messy

before it gets fixed.

Potential Minefield: Do make sure that you don't rush to use a technique, so that you can all get out the door. As frustrating as it can be - taking the time to come to true consensus is the better route. Over the long-term real commitment to the decision, pays better dividends.

Acknowledge everyone's contribution to the successful outcome once the conflict is resolved. This can help to build unity in the team and increase their confidence in their abilities to solve problems - whether they are task or relationship issues.

In Summary

Conflict in the workplace can be a positive thing, provided that it is managed and dealt with promptly. A signature tune of any high-performance team, is that team members are open to hearing other points of view and learning from them... rather than allowing them to escalate into bitter disputes within the team.

Team members learn conflict resolution skills, through both the careful guidance of their team leader and by being trained in the skills that enable them to communicate, interact, negotiate and provide feedback effectively. Unfortunately many organizations' don't see the value in spending money on training these so-called 'soft' skills. 

'Soft-skills' are one of the reasons that many businesses don't become high-performing. They underestimate the value and the impact of the social system, within their organization. Thereby destining themselves to performance that is less effective and powerful than it could be. Hopefully that doesn't happen in your place of business, and conflict in the workplace is easily handled.

Don't underestimate the value and impact of the social system on performance

Become a Master at Resolving Conflict In The Workplace

For more on influencing others and minimizing the negative impact of conflict in the workplace, download "Successful Feedback"

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