Enhancing workplace culture through effective conflict resolution
Navigating conflict can feel daunting, but it doesn’t have to be.
There are ways you can proactively manage conflict and still maintain healthy relationships.
Popular author and speaker Simon Sinek describes it as a skill.
“Confrontation is a human skill. I think it needs to be taught”.
He also breaks down common myths about addressing conflict by adding that “It doesn’t need to be aggressive” or lead to escalating tension.
Conflict resolution skills are becoming increasingly utilised in the proactive approach to conflict management and the prevention of human and monetary costs of entrenched workplace disputes.
These skills are applicable for interacting with colleagues from a diverse range of backgrounds, management status, and professional roles.
What is conflict?
Disagreements are a natural feature of any relationship – friends, family, romantic or work colleagues to name a few.
Workplace conflict happens when a difference exists between people, and there are competing interests, beliefs, or goals that, at least initially, appear to be incompatible.
Types of conflict
Given the diversity of human experiences and opinions we’re bound to encounter conflict in the workplace in some form.
Harvard Business Review shares the kinds of conflict we can encounter at work.
These include, but are not limited to:
- Task conflict – can relate to differences of opinion on how to do something, managing expectations, interpretation of facts, and allocation of resources.
- Relationship conflict – can originate from differences in personality style, communication, and behaviour, or even conflict styles.
- Value conflict – can arise from differences in identity, values, and deeply held beliefs, e.g., politics, religion, ethics, and social norms.
Causes of workplace conflict
How we respond to these differences appears to be strongly influenced by whether we perceive it as a threat.
If we feel threatened, our evolved fight, flight, or freeze response is likely to be activated.
This can manifest in reactions such as avoidance, silence, aggression, or even violence.
The good news is that conflict doesn’t always have negative impacts, when managed well.
Instead, conflict can be productive, for example, leading to creative and innovative solutions.
“Conflict does not just happen, nor does conflict escalate by itself. People make choices that escalate conflict or lead to more constructive outcomes” said author Professor Dean Tjosvold.
Best practice approaches to managing workplace conflict are based on a combination of proactive controls and measures, and early intervention using sound conflict resolution skills.
Specialist mental health and wellbeing firm, FBG Group, encourages employees and leaders to share responsibility for managing conflicts.
Professor Richard Saundry points to the important impact that leaders have in mitigating workplace conflicts.
His work highlights five key areas below where leaders can be proactive and implement control measures to prevent escalations in conflict.
1. Establish clear expectations for workplace conduct. This may include a code of conduct which sets out some general rules of engagement between employees and stakeholders.
Tip: It’s important that organisations establish parameters for online conduct as the increase in hybrid work means that communication often occurs via online platforms.
2. Lay the foundations for strong working relationships. When employees have good rapport with one another, this often allows for quick and effective resolution of differences.
Tip: One way of fostering collegial relationships is providing regular opportunities for teams to connect and get to know each other.
3. Provide forums for employees to share their concerns with leaders without recrimination. Proactively resolving differences by providing psychologically safe forums to openly raise concerns may be an important step in preventing protracted workplace disputes.
Did you know? There has been a recent rise in conflict between employees and their organisations, e.g., perceived issues with workload allocation or alignment in values.
4. Facilitate a culture that focuses on mutual goals and shared successes and discourages a competitive win-lose approach, to mitigate escalations in conflict between teams and individuals.
Tip: Identify ways in which systems and processes may contribute to workload disparity, or inequitable opportunities to receive rewards and benefits, to proactively prevent conflict.
5. Train and coach leaders in conflict resolution. This is a key leadership skill, a core competency for people leaders, and an important area for professional development.
How we can navigate differences
Conflict can be stressful however it can also help us develop professionally and personally to improve both our relationship and communication skills.
Here are a few tips:
When our brains sense a threat, real or perceived, we are engineered to protect ourselves.
Our brains release stress hormones, designed to motivate us into fight or flight reactions, in what has been dubbed 'amygdala hijack'.
Unless there is an immediate risk to your safety however, the fight or flight reaction is unlikely to be constructive and there could be a risk of escalating conflict.
One of the most important things to remember in any conflict situation is it’s okay to take some time to calm down before you respond.
Taking a break can help you re-engage the frontal lobe, which is responsible for problem-solving, so you can decide how you would like to respond.
One way to calm the brain would be to take some deep box breaths.
Even taking a pause for as little as six seconds can circumvent the Amygdala Hijack.
Check your biases
We tend to make interpretations about the differences between ourselves and others, which can include conscious or unconscious biases.
For example, we might assume that because someone has a particular ethnicity, they would also have certain religious or political views.
The stories or narratives that we create about a person can often include assumptions or stereotypes that feel true for us but may not be true for them.
Jennifer Driver, Senior Psychologist at FBG recommends an important skill that helps us to resolve conflict is intentionally challenging the preconceived ideas that we have about a person.
This can be achieved, for example, by asking them open-ended questions with genuine curiosity.
Acknowledge the conflict
Whether you’re feeling impacted by a difference between you and a colleague, or whether they have a conflict with you, it’s important to acknowledge that there is a conflict.
Driver says an effective way to initiate a conversation about a perceived conflict is to first keep to the facts.
“A good rule of thumb is to only describe what you can see with your eyes and hear with your ears.”
Only once you’ve been able to factually define their behaviour, then you can take ownership for what this means for you and why it’s important.
An endorsed communication skill to is to use 'I' statements to describe your subjective reactions or feelings to the situation.
Avoid using 'you' to prevent tapping into your own biases and assumptions about your colleague.
Wait for them to explain why you might be observing the behaviour.
Make sure the other person is heard. Invite them to tell you what they are experiencing.
It may be a simple misunderstanding, however, avoid interrupting them and first let them explain.
Choose your response
The Thomas-Kilmann model is a popular framework that identifies ways of responding to conflict blending skills of cooperativeness and assertiveness.
The model identifies three approaches are most conducive to achieving conflict resolution: collaboration, compromise, and accommodation.
People with emotional intelligence tend to use the skill of accommodation to move a conflict closer to resolution, by first recognising and apologising for how they have contributed to it.
FBG recommends being clear with your colleague on your intention to resolve the conflict and carefully choose language that is open, flexible, and accountable.
Another important aspect to demonstrating willingness to resolve conflict is to calmly paraphrase what you’ve heard the other person say, to ensure there have been no misinterpretations.
Create the right environment
We suggest that you purposefully choose an environment that will help facilitate a healthy resolution.
- Firstly, timing is important, and you may need to wait until you and the other person are calm.
- Choose a neutral and private physical space for the conversation so that you can have an uninterrupted conversation that isn’t influenced by bystanders.
- Ensure your non-verbal cues are aligned with your intention to resolve the conflict. A few tips are to keep eye contact to build trust and take a relaxed tone and posture to show you’re not a threat.
- Take extra caution when interacting via an online platform. You may need to set explicit expectations around privacy since you don’t have full visibility of the other person’s space. To maintain rapport, you may also need to rely more on non-verbal cues such as facial expression and tone.
Conflict resolution can be achieved with these tips and more. FBG is available to help you get there.
If you would like further information about training and coaching programs delivered by our expert team at FBG Group, please contact us on 1300 326 941.
- Calming your brain during conflict – Harvard Business Review
- How to de-escalate an argument at work – GCF Global
- De-escalate conflict at work with these communication skills – Slack
- 3 types of conflict and how to address them – Harvard Business Review
- The art of a heartfelt apology – Harvard Health
If you are experiencing conflict where you feel unsafe, you may be experiencing bullying or abuse.
If you are in an emergency or your life is in danger, call 000.
- How to better handle confrontation – Simon Sinek
- Fairness, justice and capability: repositioning conflict management – Acas UK
- Defining conflict and making choices about Its management – Professor Dean Tjosvold
- 7 tips for turning conflict into creativity – Forbes
- Five things we know about workplace conflict but ignore – CIPD UK
- The impact of COVID on workplace conflict – Forbes
- How to combat unconscious bias at work – Forbes
- Box breathing techniques and benefits – Verywell Mind
- Amygdala hijack: how it works, signs and how to cope – Simply Psychology