Conflict Resolution: Finding the Good from Conflict
Read Time: 9 minutes
Have you ever received guidance or training in conflict resolution? Like 60% of employees in the U.S., your answer is probably, “no.” Yet research shows that conflict occurs at every level of the organization and costs billions of dollars and millions of lost working days—without generating any of the good that can come from conflict.
Good from conflict? Absolutely. The right kind of conflict brings individuals and teams closer together and strengthen their trust in each other; sparks creativity, with new ideas and solutions; and spurs change by shedding a light on problem areas of your organization—resources, customer relations, communication of goals, management techniques.
For conflict and conflict resolution to be positive, you must first determine the source of the clash: personalities, ideas, or tasks and processes. Sometimes the three overlap, but not always, and they require slightly different approaches.
We all have people who set off our fight reflex. In an era of greater inclusion and diversity, that reflex can generate conflict that not only puts individuals at risk, but the organization as a whole.
Your organization or team should have guidelines about acceptable behaviors, spanning workplace language (for example, banning racial and sexual slurs), behavior (promoting collaboration), and topics (avoiding religious or political appeals). These guidelines should be part of the employee handbook and onboarding procedure, available to and known by everyone.
When conflict occurs, especially around unacceptable language, behaviors, and topics, conflict resolution begins with a neutral party’s effort to calm the emotions. As the leader, you will most often serve as that neutral party. Your efforts depend on both your listening skills and your emotional intelligence—your ability to identify and understand emotions.
The parties to the conflict may be too emotionally involved to approach their disagreement in a nonjudgmental, objective way. You might ask them to describe the conflict one at a time from their own viewpoint, with no interruptions from the other person. You might ask what they expected the conflict to accomplish and whether conflict is the best way to achieve those goals.
Tip: Ask each person to fill out the S.M.a.R.T Conversations Prep Sheet before the discussion even begins. This will help get to the root of the problem and streamline the conversation.
Once they have each given a respectful account of the conflict, you should allow the two people to find conflict resolution on their own. Rather than delivering a ruling yourself, your role is to facilitate them in their search for a win/win.
The best resolution ends with mutual apologies. Unless the parties make some gesture of reconciliation, the conflict is likely to simmer underground and rise up again. You should always document the conversation, however, just in case it recurs, requiring mediation or action by HR or another authority.
After conflict reconciliation, you should find that your team is h4er than it was before. Undistracted by conflict, and reminded of the team and company rules, they become a more cohesive, functional unit.
Conflict of Ideas
When people conflict over ideas—the best way to handle a situation, for example—they may resolve the conflict through accommodation, with the person of lower rank giving in to the person of higher rank; avoidance, hoping the situation resolves itself on its own; or compromise, with neither party completely happy. However, true conflict resolution requires collaboration.
For collaboration to succeed as a method of conflict resolution, you may need to remind people of:
- Their mutual goal
- The guidelines about acceptable behaviors mentioned earlier
- The uselessness of finger pointing
- The importance of respecting each other’s contribution, so that wounded self-esteem doesn’t become part of the problem.
Because idea generation usually involves many individuals, it requires a meeting structure that lets everyone be heard, accepts that disagreements will arise, and that encourages innovative thinking. One technique of conflict resolution is to encourage participants in the meeting to take notes as each person speaks, holding questions to the end, to ensure everyone’s full attention. Participants are also asked to look for points of agreement even in ideas they disagree with.
While you as the leader may have the ultimate say in which ideas are chosen, you should ensure that every member of your team has a chance to contribute and should embrace as many parts of the conflicting ideas as you can. Once participants agree on the direction they will take, everyone should be thanked for their participation, made aware of next steps, and encouraged to make the chosen idea(s) work with specific roles and deadlines.
Sometimes it pays to go directly to action: implement something—anything—as a solution, look at the results, and course-correct. For that method of conflict resolution to succeed, the team has to trust that no one will be blamed for failure and everyone will support the process.
With proper resolution, a conflict of ideas may turn into the impetus for creative thinking and innovation. It may spark an entirely new approach that energizes the entire organization—creating genuine good from conflict.
Conflict of Tasks & Processes
The most obvious type of this conflict is competition for limited resources: even access to the copier machine can generate heated arguments when deadlines loom for more than one team. Tasks and procedures are a major source of conflict in the workplace.
In trying to resolve conflicts over tasks and processes a leader’s first duty is clear communication. A climate of uncertainty over who is responsible for what and when is bound to cause conflict. A company also has an obligation to provide the resources people need to do their jobs or to help them find those resources. Finally, the goal of processes is to help people work efficiently; that includes running effective, efficient, and successful meetings.
Conflict over how to approach tasks and processes often stem from generational or cultural differences. For example, one generation may find that music assists thinking while the other equates listening to music with goofing off. In those cases, a company can expect good results from cross-cultural education and cross-generational mentoring.
By resolving conflicts over tasks and processes, a company improves both its internal and external relationships. Instead of being stalled over conflict, employees concentrate on completing tasks on time and on budget, making for much happier teams and customers and once again finding the good in conflict.
Additional Considerations about Conflict Resolution
Language is of first important in conflict resolution. Some comments like “it was just a joke” or “if they don’t like what I said, they shouldn’t have…” are both avoidance and blaming techniques; and yet others are simply inflammatory (for example, referring to a woman as “girl” or a man as “boy”).
The medium of communication is also significant. Email is notable for escalating rather than resolving conflict as the written word misses tone, expression, and often precision; it is too open to misinterpretation. For true conflict resolution, face-to-face communication is imperative.
Finally, time is a factor. The longer a conflict is allowed to go on, the more likely it will increase and the harder it will be to resolve. Avoidance and delay may be acceptable for minor, passing conflicts and may provide time for the parties to regain control; but a continued refusal to discuss or admit conflict means that resentment percolates and opportunities for creative problem solving are lost.
Finding the good in conflict is easier if you and your team have training in conflict resolution. Outside, objective help is available for training, facilitation, and creation of a formal company-wide conflict resolution process. Taking advantage of that help will bring true resolution closer, with all of its benefits.
Conflicts can occur from several different sources such as a clash of personalities, ideas or processes. Learning how to resolve conflict is an excellent training opportunity for every team. Conflict, when handled properly, often results in an increase of team synergy, confidence and new or better ideas.