How to Deal With Conflict in the Workplace (a 6-Step Strategy)

Employees in conflict at a meeting.All businesses experience conflict – it’s an inevitable consequence of asking individuals to work together closely. Differing personalities, goals, and approaches can lead to tension and disagreement, either among coworkers or between employees and management.

You can try to reduce the incidence of conflict in the workplace, but no one is perfect and issues will occasionally arise. That’s why it’s so important to have a strategy in place to handle conflict when it happens. A solid plan enables you to resolve the issue more quickly, which means you can get back to focusing on your business.

Every situation is unique, but there are certain techniques that are likely to be effective in almost any conflict situation. In this article we discuss six steps that make up a solid strategy; by following them, you’ll be well-equipped to manage conflict effectively.

Step 1: Understand Your Role in the Conflict

The first thing you need to do when a conflict arises is evaluate your own role in the situation. One of two scenarios is likely: either you’re personally involved in the conflict, or you’re an outside observer.

If you’re involved in the conflict, take a moment to evaluate your part in what has happened. Even if you feel you have been wronged, take responsibility for your own contributing actions (it is rare that one party is 100% to blame). Understand that you will likely have to make a change or compromise to resolve the situation. If this doesn’t seem possible, you may want to seek a neutral third party to help.

However, if you are a third party, you’ll still want to consider whether you are the best person to address this conflict. It may be better delegated to your manager or a dedicated HR employee. Seek out any relevant company policies or procedures, and if it isn’t your job to handle this conflict, inform the person whose job it is. If you’re able to, it may be worth creating specific company guidelines that outline who’s responsible for what types of problems, and including them in an employee handbook or information database.

Step 2: Ensure the Conflict is Handled Impartially

This step is closely linked with the first, because it will also impact your decision about who should handle the conflict.

In any workplace, all employees must feel their concerns are heard and needs are met if they are to perform well. This is especially true in a small business, where people must often work together closely on a day-to-day basis.

That’s why you need to be fair to all sides in a conflict, not just whoever appears to be ‘in the right’. Remain impartial and avoid making judgments until you have all the necessary information – this will ensure everyone feels they are being treated equally. If you don’t think this is possible due to your own personal bias, take the conflict to a neutral third party, such as an HR employee or your own manager.

Step 3: Evaluate the Conflict Thoroughly

Once you’re sure you are the right person to handle the conflict and can remain impartial, it’s time to evaluate the issue.

Instead of making snap judgments, start by fully investigating the situation. This means getting all the facts regarding what has happened by talking to everyone involved in the conflict. Practice good listening skills with all parties, and keep a written record of what you learn.

You’ll also want to look through any relevant rules or procedures in company documentation for instructions about how to handle this type of situation (if applicable). Once you’ve heard the story from all angles and trawled through company materials for any relevant information (or spoken with someone else in the company more knowledgeable about handling conflict, such as an experienced manager), you’re ready to move on.

Step 4: Determine the Real Issues Involved

Now that all the ‘raw’ information is in place, you can sort through it to determine the source of the conflict. Some workplace disagreements are fairly obvious to diagnose, but many are more nuanced. What seems to be the problem on the surface might not be the true issue.

For example, imagine employee A is angry at employee B for constantly parking in employee A’s designated parking spot. It would be easy to take this conflict at face value: employee B is being inconsiderate. However, the real problem may be that employee B has a physical difficulty that makes it hard to walk very far, or is ‘retaliating’ over a separate work-related argument (the resolution of which would resolve this problem).

It’s crucial to get to the real source of the conflict, because that’s where your solution must be targeted. In addition, you’ll want to determine if this is a one-time problem or a recurring issue. This will also affect the strategy you choose, because the latter will almost certainly require a more in-depth and long-term solution, while the former may only merit a simple apology.

Step 5: Develop a Practical Solution

It’s finally time to decide on a solution to the conflict.

Start by brainstorming a list of possible fixes. You can do this on your own, though it’s best to include all relevant parties to get multiple perspectives. It’s also a good idea to seek suggestions from others outside the conflict who may have fresh or unique ideas (but be sure to maintain confidentiality).

Once you have a solid list of possibilities, focus on the ones that will prevent the situation from arising again. Identify the solutions that are most practical and easy to implement, and address the needs of all parties. You may not be able to hit all these criteria, but try to meet as many as possible when making your decision.

If you’re stuck between a few solutions that seem likely, draw up a pros and cons list for each and pick the one with the most benefits. You might also want to give preference to solutions you can implement quickly, so the conflict doesn’t have time to fester. If the first solution you choose doesn’t work, after all, you can always try something else until you find a winning approach.

Step 6: Foster a Low-Conflict Environment

Once the immediate crisis has been handled and a solution is in place, it’s time to turn your attention to preventing future conflicts. A workplace where open communication is encouraged and problems are addressed quickly is one where employees waste less time and are more productive.

There are plenty of ways to create a low-conflict environment at work, but here are a few key techniques:

  • Get to know your staff and coworkers. Staying in communication means you will get to know what matters to them and can spot dissatisfaction earlier.
  • Find out how people feel about their work, needs, and coworkers by having periodic one-on-one meetings and/or sending out surveys.
  • Be available, so people know they can come to you with problems. Make it obvious how employees can get in touch with you quickly, and consider an open-door policy.
  • Organize occasional social events, so people can get to know each other on a personal level. This should help them feel more comfortable with their coworkers and management.

Chances are, you’ll never be able to completely eliminate conflict – we’re all human, after all. You can significantly reduce it, however, which will be an excellent outcome for your business.

Conclusion

Conflict is messy and undesirable, so it’s tempting to avoid dealing with it. However, businesses that can successfully manage disputes have a leg up over the competition. Creating a low-conflict workplace and handling issues quickly and fairly will provide employees and management alike with peace of mind and the freedom to work hard on what matters most.

With that in mind, practice these six strategies to deal with conflict effectively:

  1. Understand your role in the conflict.
  2. Ensure the situation is handled impartially.
  3. Evaluate the situation thoroughly.
  4. Determine the real issues involved.
  5. Develop a practical solution.
  6. Foster a low-conflict environment.

Do you have any other tips for dealing with workplace conflict in your small business? Tell us about them in the comments section below!

Image credit: Scott Maxwell.

About Tom Ewer


Tom Ewer and the WordCandy team have clocked some serious mileage as freelancers, agency employees and even agency owners over the years, and they love sharing their combined expertise here on the Bidsketch blog.

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