Every manager faces conflict on their team at some point–and that’s why managers benefit so much from training in conflict resolution skills. Whether it’s to deal with an argument between coworkers, or by being the CEO of a divided company, the conflict resolution process must be part of any managers’ skills inventory. Hopefully, you won’t need it often, but when you do, the ability to handle workplace conflict is absolutely vital.
What Is Conflict Resolution?
Conflict resolution is an intervention between two opposing groups that causes each side to suspend or end their argument. This intervention can be immediate or take place over time. Conflict resolution usually involves many people, including managers, HR, and professional mediators.
Preferably, the resolution is permanent and satisfactory to both sides. But a more common situation is a lengthy process where each side presents their case and an authority acts as a judge, who then decides how each party needs to act going forward.
Why isn’t a resolution always permanent? At times, complex situations that disrupt activity need to be dealt with on the spot, so one form of conflict resolution is “shut up and get back to work”. An autocratic manager might leave it there (see below), but the problem is almost certain to reoccur. In the workplace, this approach is also unprofessional. Simmering resentment is bound to cause problems that affect productivity.
Conflict Resolution in the Workplace
Workplace conflict resolution needs to take a long-term and balanced approach. A conflict that is handled in a way that feels unfair to one (or both) sides can lead to turnover, with 58% of workers explaining that office politics have been a factor in quitting. Plus, a poor conflict resolution process contributes to employee dissatisfaction with management – workers who have a negative perception of their boss leave their company at a rate that is almost double the average across industries.
But not every organization has the time or resources for lengthy mediation. That’s why it’s often up to managers to be judge, jury, and enforcer. To make sure that everyone is as content as possible, managers need to apply their conflict resolution skills.
Examples of Conflict Resolution Skills
Conflict resolution encompasses many skill elements. For example, being persuasive, even if that means acting aggressively, can work in many conflict situations – but not always. In general, soft skills training is the most beneficial type of conflict resolution training for employees, with an emphasis on the following areas:
A huge part of successful leadership skills is the ability to mediate, which comes as no surprise. To some degree, managers are constantly dealing with disagreements and clashing interests, often directed towards them. There is a reason why there are so many professional mediation firms hired as third parties for conflict resolution, in a market that’s worth USD 500 million. Many of these companies also provide training for managers to develop their abilities to a professional level.
Adaptive skills are great for adjusting to sudden developments and for getting used to new situations. Both apply in the case of conflict resolution. Many arguments reach a breaking point that threatens to disrupt an organization, and a good manager will be able to quickly adapt to any changes. Similarly, dealing with strife often requires a manager to create new ways of cooperation. Specific adaptive skill elements that are highly relevant to conflict resolution include stress management and taking the initiative.
“Conflict” and “problem” are essentially synonyms, so developing problem-solving skills to solve internal battles is crucial. Within this family of skills, there are specific elements that L&D should focus on:
Part of the conflict resolution process (see below) is to come up with a few potential answers to the issues behind the argument. For a lone manager, this can be tough, as we are all limited in our thinking to some extent. By leveraging the teamwork skills of other managers, HR people, or even a coach, you can help the process leader generate ideas that attack the problem from various angles.
Critical thinking skills
It’s rare that one side of an argument is totally wrong, or right for that matter. Part of conflict resolution is to understand any faults, and to give credit where it’s due. Critical thinking allows the manager to take apart the claims from each side and examine their validity. Plus, when it comes to narrowing down a solution, critical thinking is essential to recognize the best concept.
Conflict Resolution vs. Conflict Management
Not every conflict has a practical solution. In certain cases, there is no way to create a proposal that the sides will accept. For example, there may be an issue based on personal values or communication styles, or some kind of problem that involves third parties such as customers and suppliers. However, if the relationship is seen as crucial, then an organization might decide to forge ahead. This requires coming up with an agreement that allows both sides to cooperate despite their differences.
Also: Not every conflict is a bad thing. When the argument is based on building the future of the company, or around issues and not personalities, then it can be turned into something constructive.
In both of these situations, conflict management acts to mediate between the two sides and generate an agreement that both sides can live with. The conflict does not go away; instead it is set aside because both parties have an arrangement that benefits them.
Conflict Resolution Strategies
For many managers, resolving a conflict is a challenge. It takes a certain type of person to get in the middle of an argument and have the presence of mind to handle things calmly and effectively.
There are a variety of conflict resolution strategies to reflect this fact. They range from minimal involvement to being overly committed. Many conflicts simply must be dealt with, so managers adjust their approach according to their personal management style. The five “classic” conflict resolution strategies are:
This is a short-term approach in which a manager tries to please both sides, but in a superficial way. No ideas for a settlement are discussed. Instead, the manager says that the problem will be looked into at some point.
This is a reasonable strategy when the manager has no defined opinion and/or needs a stopgap measure so that both sides can return to work. However, employees are certain to remember that the manager promised action. Accommodation is more of a method for buying time and using a different, more concrete strategy later on.
Another short-term strategy is ignoring the conflict altogether. This is not necessarily the decision of a manager who hates confrontation. At times, a manager is simply too busy, and needs to let employees know that it is up to them to put their issues on the back burner for now. There are also situations when workers must calm down in order for a proper discussion to take place. In both cases, employees have to act as professionals and put their differences away for the time being.
In this strategy, managers take the time to listen to both sides. Then they pass judgment and explain what they want to happen. Later on, they follow up to make sure that their instructions are being followed.
This strategy is used by managers who feel a need to step in, but not commit too much time to the issues. Of course, they might miss some important details that leave the original reasons for the conflict in place. But at least both sides have been heard.
Managers with lots of empathy and time often use the collaboration strategy. Both sides can make their case extensively, and the manager might even coach a discussion between them. The manager then creates some proposals, personally ensures that they are implemented, and follows up on a frequent basis.
This strategy is useful when both sides have considerable importance within the organization and valid points to make. Although it takes a lot of time away from the manager, it stands the best chance of satisfying the different sides.
The competitive strategy is often used by forceful managers who see a conflict as an opportunity to assert themselves and show how competitive they are in an argument. This strategy involves listening to both sides and then dominating the situation. When the manager declares what the solution will be, they also follow up extensively to guarantee that the parties are following orders.
A competitive approach makes sense when there are larger issues at stake, such as surviving an emergency or when a manager’s authority is challenged. However, this method often refocuses the feeling of resentment between the parties on the manager instead.
Conflict Resolution Processes
Each of the strategies listed above has a certain process associated with it, but there are major differences between them. For instance, “avoidance” simply requires ignoring the problem for the moment. But more effective approaches generally adhere to the following steps:
- Recognition that a problem exists, with somebody in a leadership position taking the initiative to resolve it
- Meetings with both sides to determine the cause of the issue and what they want to change
- Formulation of possible solutions and selecting the best as a first attempt at clearing up the problem
- Ensuring that the solution is properly implemented, then assessing results; if both sides are satisfied, making the solution into a standard practice
Conflict Resolution Skills Training and GrowthSpace
A “one size fits all” L&D program is never a great idea, and particularly for conflict resolution.
Every manager is different, and so is every organization, with each requiring a customized approach to building this essential ability. Discovering that you don’t have the skills that it takes to deal with disagreements – especially when you are in the middle of one – can lead to disaster.
That’s why GrowthSpace provides a personalized L&D experience for every employee, no matter the size of the organization. Through advanced proprietary technology, GrowthSpace’s talent development solution matches employees to experts, and gets managers up to speed with the latest conflict resolution techniques. Don’t wait until a conflict becomes a crisis – upskill with GrowthSpace and manage the next clash with professional savvy.