Sadly, the media is responsible for most people’s concept of conflict; fighting, pain and destruction. In reality, conflict is a wide spectrum with those things at one end and simple misalignments at the other. After all, when two pieces of software won’t work together, it’s called… a conflict. Conflict is not all bad. Effective modern matrix organisations deliberately create tensions (Galbraith, 2008) in which, if the conflict component is handled well, can be a catalyst for significant creativity and innovation.

As a consequence, one of the most difficult yet critical things that managers will have to deal with is conflict in the workplace. Work related conflict is caused by a variety of factors including:

  • Competing priorities
  • Competition over finite resources
  • Poor communication
  • Personality clashes
  • Differences in personal and professional values

If not handled appropriately, an internal conflict can evolve into a major problem. Even worse when it arises between an employee and a customer the effects can be devastating.

Handling conflict by talking.

Conflict often begins between two parties who have opposing views on a particular situation or circumstance. Sometimes secondary parties get drawn into the conflict and although they have an indirect stake in the outcome, their impact can be profound, often heightening the tension. There may also be third parties that become involved: bystanders who try to become involved and act as intermediaries or facilitators as the conflict becomes more drawn out and polarised.

Clearly, the sooner the conflict is resolved the less damage it will cause. Allowing open wounds to fester only increases the likelihood of long-term disease in the workplace. In the worst-case scenario, conflict will need to be contained. This may lead to a manager taking disciplinary action, calling on witnesses, acting as a referee, and ultimately making a judgement call and becoming a peacekeeper; time-consuming stuff that removes the manager from focusing on strategic issues.

If employees feel able to talk, raise concerns, and know that their views will be heard fairly, they will cooperate more easily and foster a healthy work environment. This is known as a Psychologically Safe Environment (Edmondson, 2018). Coaching employees in conflict resolution techniques is central to its creation.

Four approaches in conflict resolution

When analysing conflict resolution strategy, we see that there are four approaches intermediaries can take during conflict resolution:

Adapted from William Ury: The Third Side: Why We Fight and How We Can Stop (Penguin, 2000)

The power of coaching employees in conflict resolution

In an ideal world, all workplaces would be free from conflict. But conflict is a natural event between human beings who have different backgrounds, education, values, and goals. In workplaces where employees have been coached in conflict resolution skills, a number of distinct benefits emerge.

Ten benefits of coaching team members in conflict resolution:

  1. Those who have worked their way through a conflict are often seen to benefit from closer working relationships, and teams become closer.
  2. Team members who are trained in conflict skills understand how to navigate conflict, skilfully using one or more of the four approaches outlined above.
  3. They can identify their own problems quickly, reducing downtime caused by internal disputes.
  4. Escalation of issues to upper management is reduced.
  5. Customer concerns and complaints are proactively dealt with at source.
  6. Unresolved conflict is reduced, removing increased tension from the workplace.
  7. ‘Infection’ reduces, preventing colleagues from getting drawn in and protecting morale and productivity.
  8. Higher psychological safety leading to a better, more relaxed, and more productive working environment.
  9. Team members who can handle conflict resolution will act more objectively and less subjectively. They will be more open to the ideas and views of others, and more understanding of emotional references.
  10. Increased objectivity helps to improve problem solving skills in the workplace.

Breaking down conflict resolution behaviour

Both managers and employees have a deep vested interest in addressing conflict quickly and efficiently. When coaching these skills, the first point of reference must be to identify the individual’s natural behaviour when conflict arises. The two dimensions of behaviour can be described as being either assertive or cooperative. In our next article, I’ll explore how these two dimensions manifest themselves in response to conflict situations.

Contact Primeast today to discuss the benefits your business will receive when it helps its employees to handle conflict.

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