Workplace Conflict Resolution

Dr. Purushothaman
October 11, 2013

Managing and resolving workplace conflict is one of the major challenges facing businesses and organizations. Because of our hardwired "fight or flight" response, we often respond to conflict either with avoidance or hard line, win at any cost, tactics. The problem is neither achieves a workable resolution. The good news is that better alternatives exist.

Afterall, conflict is a normal part of life. Our ability to resolve problems effectively and manage change dramatically impacts our success and work satisfaction. A company or organization's ability to resolve conflict productively impacts productivity, competitiveness, and its bottom line.

Five Ways of Addressing Conflict

There are five basic styles we humans use to address conflict:

Accommodation - or "killing them with kindness." It is surrendering one's needs and wants for the satisfaction of another. This works well in courting situations of all kinds, whether customers, potential employers, or love interests. It is the strategy of choice when the relationship is the most important element.

Avoidance - the flight part of "fight or flight." It is the process of ignoring or postponing conflict. This can be useful as a temporary measure but it never resolves the problem. Sometimes, however, there is no way to win and it is best to just cut your losses. As the song says, "You got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em."

Collaboration - the act of two or more people working together to achieve more than the sum of the individual parts. This is what people mean when they refer to "win/win". However it requires trust and open communication to work. Therefore, it is time and work intensive to achieve.

Competition - the fight part of "fight or flight." It is the process of trying to do better than others or at others' expense. Sometimes, however, scarcity exists and survival of the fittest, strongest, etc. is the only way to go.

Compromise - a quick dispute settlement process in which two or more sides agree to accept less than they originally wanted. This is also known as "split the difference." It is less than optimal as a resolution strategy because it requires each side to give up things that are important. It is a good backup strategy.

These styles were first identified by Thomas and Kilman in 1976.

Why People Avoid Conflict

Meaningful work conflict is essential to an organization's health and success. Think of the "clash of ideas," that ultimately creates a better product. The alternative is called "groupthink," and can lead to disaster, e.g. the Challenger explosion. Yet most people avoid conflict at all costs at work. Why?

Because pushing for resolution means exercising personal courage by standing up for your ideas and beliefs and bringing important differences and perspectives forward. Many are uncomfortable because they lack conflict resolution skills and are afraid of getting hurt or losing out. Having to endure conflicts in your workplace without sufficient information, training, tools, or support, puts you in an uncomfortable position.

Yet conflict can be productive, beneficial and empowering. Relationships are often deepened when people work through their differences to a mutually satisfactory result. Disagreements often result in a more thorough study of options and better decisions and direction. Ownership in and commitment to the resolution are increased through participation and involvement

Resolving Workplace Conflict Constructively!

Here are some tips taken from those who resolve disputes for a living.

Define the actual causes of the conflict. Find and enlist your adversary in finding, the real issues which are not necessarily the ones you are currently arguing about. Ask what are we fighting about? How can we work this out? What are we each trying to accomplish?

Validate differences in perception and point of view. There are always 3 different truths in any argument, yours, mine and the actual truth. Neither of us can know "the whole truth and nothing but the truth," only our own perception. Validating and accepting your adversary's perception does not obligate you to share it. By doing so, you are inviting him or her to join in the resolution process.

Set up and get agreement for a process you both will work through. Usually this involves each side having completely uninterrupted time (with an agreed upon limit) to express themselves about the conflict. Separate this from the process of seeking possible resolutions. People need to vent and be heard. Freed from the burden of unexpressed emotions they become available to generate and evaluate solutions.

Listen actively. Habit 5 of Stephen Covey's 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is "[S]eek first to understand, then to be understood." This means to listen with the intent to understand not respond. Communication is key to managing conflict and resolving problems. Feeling heard, your adversary can now take the next step toward reconciliation.

Document the resolution and the plan of action and provide copies to both sides. Documentation is important for a lot of reasons. One is that it provides each party with an agreed roadmap for implementation. It can also be crucial if the dispute later becomes a legal case.


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