Managing conflict in the workplace: a practical guide

A green hedge maze representing the process of managing conflict in the workplace

Conflict – it’s a word that tends to have negative connotations. We might associate it with tension, arguments, frustration, or general discomfort and as such the average person would probably prefer to avoid conflict at all costs. And yes, while in the short term it might be less uncomfortable to not address the conflict, the knock-on effects of leaving issues unresolved can be far more detrimental – reduced productivity, employee engagement, and employee satisfaction to name but a few. Managing conflict in the workplace is an essential skill for all leaders, allowing them to promote healthy, respectful and psychological safe teams.

When it comes to our workplaces, conflicts are an inevitability. In fact, the average worker spends 2.1 hours per week resolving disagreements. The good news, however, is that it’s also possible to maintain a peaceful environment by managing conflicts in a mature and proactive way.

Besides being inevitable, conflict can also be positive and even healthy for professional relationships, and for employee satisfaction. In fact, it’s crucial that we embrace conflict rather than avoid it so that we can explore better ideas and devise more innovative solutions. In business, it’s this ability to deal with problems that unites teams and improves their ability to handle challenges when they naturally arise

As a leader, it’s essential that you learn how to effectively manage conflict in the workplace and empower your team members to appropriately handle issues when they occur. In fact, here at Virtual Training Team, we consider it a cornerstone of team building and leadership.

In this practical guide, we provide you with a structured framework to understand and resolve conflict effectively, so that you can enhance your skillset and your team dynamic.

Understand types of conflict

In essence, conflict arises when there’s a difference of opinion or priorities between two or more opposing parties and can occur in our personal and professional lives.

Depending on the type of conflict, the complexity and potential for fallout increases. Gaining an awareness of the different types of conflicts that exist and the appropriate means of managing them are incredibly important to allow leaders to manage conflict within the workplace, especially when we accept that they will occur. What we don’t want is to halt our team’s progress and reduce their productivity – all of which can happen if a conflict isn’t dealt with swiftly and effectively.

In this guide, we have identified the 4 main types of conflict. They are:

1. Intrapersonal Conflict – This is an internal conflict restricted to the individual, where they may be struggling with decisions regarding their personal values, difficult emotions, or troubling thoughts. This conflict may result in reduced concentration and participation levels. Individuals could be encouraged to share with their colleagues or manager or to seek professional counsel.

2. Interpersonal Conflict – This is a conflict between two individuals, where there may be a difference of opinion, a personality or even a culture clash. They typically occur due to a misunderstanding and miscommunication. These conflicts are bound to happen in organisations, and if resolved can be a beneficial means of personal growth for those involved.

3. Intragroup Conflict – This is a conflict between team members and is generally caused by disagreement and misunderstanding. It’s important for this type of conflict to be handled swiftly by the team leader as it can lead to tension and unease for all team members.

4. Intergroup Conflict – This is a conflict between different groups within an organisation when each group has different goals and priorities which may cause them to compete and see each other as the enemy.

Why do we avoid conflict and should we?

Human beings by nature are conflict avoidant, however, unfortunately, conflict is part and parcel of working life: whether it’s challenging current strategy, innovation, or decision making. So, if we must get involved in a , we should have the tools to manage conflict in the workplace carefully and effectively.

If we take Robert de Niro’s famous analogy – ‘the circle of trust’ – let us imagine a ‘circle of conflict.’ The vast majority of people jump into the circle because they have a conflict, however, instead of staying within the circle until the conflict has been resolved, they jump back out of it as soon as humanly possible.

This is completely understandable, conflict is uncomfortable, it unearths unpleasant feelings, and we may remember past negative experiences of it.

However, what we must be aware of is that unfortunately when conflict goes badly, they go VERY badly. Mishandled conflict can make people feel terrible and can ruin relationships.

Now in the age of remote teams, where we’re physically separated from one another, and without the opportunity for face-2-face reconciliation, it’s more important than ever to reassess our techniques for managing conflict in the workplace. In fact, a recent survey revealed lack of communication is the number 1 cause of conflict in the workplace. It is more important than ever that leaders are able to deploy strategies to create an envirnonment where the risk of conflict is minimised.

The Surprising Benefits of Conflict

Conflict is an important component of a high-performing team, and in more diverse teams, it’s also more likely to occur.

Here’s a look at some of specific the advantages of conflict when its welcomed and resolved quickly and openly:

  1. Increases respect and trust between team members
  2. Encourages debate and exchange of ideas
  3. Enhances verbal communications
  4. Reduces stress
  5. Ramps up innovation
  6. Increases productivity

A Framework for Managing Conflict

OK, so we’ve established that conflict is inevitable and positive (who knew!) but how exactly do we manage conflict in the workplace effectively? According to the Thomas and Kilmann model, there are 5 distinct modes of dealing with conflict:

  1. Avoid – completely shying away from the conflict.
  2. Accommodate – agreeing to the requests of the other party, perhaps at the expense of your own.
  3. Compromise – finding a midway point to which both parties agree, however often typically neither party is totally satisfied.
  4. Collaborate – finding an agreement which completely satisfies all parties. However, it can take a long time to arrive at an agreement and sometimes it’s quite impossible especially if both parties want contrasting outcomes
  5. Compete – Wanting a result that only satisfies your own needs.

The key is being aware of these 5 different means of managing the conflict and choosing the appropriate approach depending on the situation. For example, if we look at the 5th approach ‘compete’ – if this was a conflict which meant jeopardising the founding principles of your business it may in this case make sense to hold firm.

Awareness of these different approaches and their implications can be particularly helpful if we have a natural orientation towards one specific means of handling conflict.

Final Thoughts

Working within a team isn’t always easy. There are times when conflict is unavoidable. Sometimes it’s a good thing, and sometimes it’s not. But if you’re a leader, you need to be able to identify and deal with the most common types of conflict so the team can work together effectively. Being able to manage conflict in the workplace can make the difference from an environment that feels safe, effective, and productive- to a toxic one.

Review this guide once more and consider whether there are any ongoing conflicts within your team or organisation at present. What type of conflicts are they? How should deal with each one individually? And what are the potential benefits of resolving this conflict for the individuals involved and the team as whole?

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