After decades of study, it’s become undeniably clear: people are different. As shocking as this revelation might be, it’s true. People have different opinions, different motivations, different wants and desires. And just as undeniably clear is this: sometimes, those differences can lead to conflict. People will disagree. One person’s wants will conflict with another’s. People will slip up and end up disappointing each other, and in the end, someone is going to end up upset.
Many will cry, “But can’t we all just get along!?” The question is simple. In an idealized world, everyone would be able to get what they want, and no one would be upset. The answer, however, is a bit more complicated. It’s certainly possible for people of differing opinions and circumstances to work together to find a solution that works for everyone, but it might require some effort. And in some situations, there simply is no ideal solution. In these sorts of circumstances, a diplomat may need to dig deep into his or her bag of tricks to find a resolution. Whatever the situation, the first step in conflict management is to determine exactly what sort of conflict has arisen. By paying close attention and learning where the root of the conflict lies, you can then determine which style of conflict management best fits the circumstance.
Different styles of conflict resolution
When faced with a conflict, there are several different options for just how to resolve it. Some are more effective than others, and some can be even more destructive than the conflict itself. If a person isn’t careful, he or she could even escalate the conflict. Essentially, conflict resolution styles can be boiled down to five core types.
The most adversarial technique, competing generally involves forcing one side’s ideas and concerns to the forefront, overriding those of the other side. While this method can certainly lead to a quick resolution to the problem at hand, if not handled properly, it can create more problems along the way. Competing is most effective when one side considers their personal goals to be more important than personal relationships.
While controversial, some circumstances do exist where competing is the proper method. When speed is critical and no other method is proving effective, it may be necessary to simply push one side’s solution forward at the expense of the other. This method may be necessary in order to stop violence, or to counter a life-threatening situation. It may be useful to end a stalemate after no common solution can be found. It is important, however, to keep in mind that this can harm the relationship between the involved parties, and much of the energy that could be used to solve the problem will likely be expended in the argument itself. Also, there is no guarantee that it will lead to a satisfactory conclusion, meaning all of those risks and potentially damaged relationship will have happened for no reason.
Avoiding, or withdrawing, is basically a non-approach to conflict resolution. Rather than addressing the conflict, the person simply ignores it. Depending on the circumstance, this can be either a temporary or permanent solution.
Avoidance does not necessarily mean sticking your fingers in your ears or burying your head in the sand. As with the other conflict management styles, it’s important to pay close attention to the circumstances surrounding the conflict and determine whether avoidance would, in this instance, be an example of running away and hiding from your problems, or merely of picking your battles.
As a temporary solution, withdrawing from the conflict can grant an opportunity to gather information and decide upon the best solution. Just don’t make the mistake of trying to avoid indefinitely a problem that must be faced. Doing so could make things worse.
Accommodating is basically the opposite of competing. It entails one party forgoing his or her own concerns and addressing the other party’s concerns first. Much like with competing, this method can be useful in the event of a tight deadline where it is important for the parties involved to come to a consensus quickly. It also applies well in a case where one party is simply more interested in the outcome than the other. The accommodating person is basically saying, “I don’t care!” and walking away from the situation.
This method can work well in some situations, but in other situations, it is markedly less than ideal. Conceding specific points can help to grant you valuable perspective. On the other hand, giving in constantly not only prevents the conceding party the things that they want, it can actually make that person seem weak. Over time, it can even become habit to simply give up when a conflict arises, which is also unhealthy. When determining whether or not to concede in a given situation, it’s wise to observe each situation separately and try to find a balance between the two options. Speaking of which…
Compromise is one of the best ways to satisfy both parties. This strategy generally works when both parties are on equal footing. Each party has to be willing to bend to a certain degree so that the two can meet in the middle at what is hopefully something that works for everyone.
One of the biggest benefits of compromise is that it can bring about a faster resolution to the conflict. Additionally, each side is able to get at least a part of what they want, meaning neither party is left out in the cold. Still, it’s not always an ideal solution, and it’s not always permanent. Compromise, while usually satisfying everyone involved for a short time, does not necessarily solve the conflict, meaning that conflict could show up again a few months down the line. It does not necessarily bring trust with it over the long run, and so once one of the parties becomes discontent, Still, in other cases, it can work wonders, leaving both of those involved quite pleased with the result.
Finally, collaborating is an attempt to show that both people or entities involved in the conflict are on the same side. The goal is for both sides to win. Rather than each side giving up certain desires to reach a consensus, both sides work together to ensure that as many desires are fulfilled as possible. This is the long sought after “win-win” approach. It brings commitment from both parties, as well as shared responsibility for whatever results come about.
Collaboration particularly works in a situation where it is important for the parties involved to agree and continue an amicable relationship. It works very well in environments where collaboration is encouraged and the people involved already hold a high level of trust for each other. Perhaps its biggest downfall is the fact that it takes a lot of time and a significant amount of effort. If a quick resolution is necessary, then it may be more prudent to select a different technique.
Potential sources of conflict
One of the most important aspects of resolving any conflict is determining the source. Sometimes, problems arise based on the way the company is run or the workload is distributed. Other times, industry problems may arise that have a negative impact on the company and its employees. And sometimes, people just don’t get along. Whatever the cause, recognizing where the problem started is the first step on the path to resolution. Let’s take a look at some of the more common reasons that problems can arise at a workplace.
Fuel for the fires of workplace conflict can come in many forms. The source for angst and frustration are not always immediately visible, but there is always a strong undercurrent at work. Being observant and listening to normal everyday conversations can provide clues and help you know when to step in to diffuse a potentially volatile situation. Any company that employs more than one person carries some level of risk that a conflict can be brewing at any given time. The United States Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics found that between 2002 and 2009, the rate of nonfatal workplace violence has declined by 35%, but even without violence, it is still a serious issue that can cost a business money.
1. Personality clashes
Add a teaspoon of vegetable oil to a half cup of water, cover with a lid and shake it well. No matter how hard you try, the oil and water will not mix. Like oil and water, some personality types simply do not mix. Nothing can be more miserable for employees than the feeling of being stuck dealing with someone whose personality clashes with their own. A negatively-thinking person may be unable to stand the constant irritation of someone who is constantly positive and happy person. The same can be said of the negative vibes that positive thinking employees have to endure. At some point there will be conflict. A survey conducted by Forbes in 2015 demonstrated a nearly unanimous response that personality clashes were the number one reason for workplace harmony.
A variety of personality tests can be administered to better help determine which employees would work well together and which pairings might produce friction and conflict. It is much easier to take the time to determine this ahead of time rather than spending extra effort monitoring volatile situations, or waiting for a serious clash of personalities that might cost your business money.
2. Employees bringing personal problems to work
Work hours only reflect a portion of the day for most employees. Life happens for everyone, and there are always challenges. It is difficult to shut off emotions and not bring outside problems to the workplace, but every effort should be made to create a drama-free work site. Everyday stress needs to be balanced with a compassionate take on situations that employees experience.
Stay in tune with the demeanor of employees so that you can recognize when they are stressed and seem anxious. Place information in key areas where employees gather for breaks to recommend sources of localized assistance for food, legal, medical or financial emergencies.
3. Gender and race conflict
It might seem strange that in one of the most technologically driven societies, discriminatory situations can arise involving gender and race. The cold hard fact is that prejudices still arise from time to time and create complete chaos when conflicts flare. Both situations are centered and driven by hate and fear, meaning things can spiral out of control quickly.
It is important to offer sensitivity training any time there have already been conflicts regarding gender and race, or if the possibility of future conflicts exists. All employees, no matter their position, must understand that discriminatory behaviors and problems with not be tolerated.
4. Co-worker jealousy
When one coworker feels they are being treated unfairly in comparison to another, jealousy can breed. This may simply be a false perspective, but even the slightest tint of favoritism for one employee over another can stoke the fires of conflict. If there are significant differences in pay, benefits, promotions and vacation days, it will begin to evoke feelings of jealousy in employees who feel slighted.
The best way to handle this type of conflict is to have strict policies in place when it comes to pay, benefits, off-time, and opportunities for promotion. Adhere to the guidelines, and make decisions and opportunities fair for everyone. Feelings of jealousy will die off if there is no fertile ground to permit it to grow.
Business operations conflicts
Sudden, unexpected changes in a business’s operation, or even a poorly planned infrastructure, can create an atmosphere that is the perfect breeding ground for conflict. Businesses have to streamline at times in order to stay on top. Below are some of the more typical reasons that conflicts can happen when it comes to business operations as a whole.
1. Perceived unequal pay and job duty distribution
Nothing can give birth to feelings of unequal treatment faster than pay rates and unfair distribution of work. Employees talk, and if one is making a significant amount less while doing equal or more work, there will be a conflict at some point. Policies forbidding employees to discuss wages with one another never work, and even if they did, they’re illegal.
Complete company transparency is the best way to handle this type of potential conflict. Allowing employees to see how and why raises are given is a golden opportunity to build an incentive to work well. Listen to feedback from employees regarding the number and intensity of tasks that are expected to be completed in a given workday and whether those tasks are fairly distributed. Often, managers are unaware of tasks that aren’t reasonably possible to complete in the time allotted, so employee feedback is absolutely necessary to fix these problems. Once these problems have been identified, a few changes to balance things may be all that is required.
2. Supervisor/Employee clashes
How well do your employees and supervisors work together? This is another source of conflict that may revolve around a difference in personalities. Supervisory and management personnel may have the credentials to direct a group of people, but how refined are their people skills?
Management level employees should optimally have the skills to work with all personality types in all situations. Providing social occasions involving all levels of personnel allows everyone to come together in a more relaxed environment. Added opportunities for supervisory training can also help you develop an eyes-on-the-ground approach to possible conflicts and quell them early on.
3. Dramatic policy or operations changes
At times, businesses have to dramatically change operational procedures, and it can leave employees feeling frustrated, since they are not part of the decision-making process. Sudden major changes can throw people off their game. It is not surprising to see upticks in the number and severity of conflicts during these times of stress from change.
Offer as much notice and explanation as possible before implementing large-scale change. Create a positive outlook from the start that all can embrace. Offer plenty of transition time and training as is possible in order to mitigate the inevitable frustration and stress.
External business influences
Not all workplace conflict starts and ends within the company’s direct influence. Keeping up with the pace of the world in business can force changes and reconfiguration, causing conflicts to erupt where there were none before. Below are two of the most common sources of conflict caused by outside forces.
1. Economic downturns
The world economy often takes unpredictable turns. When the economy falters, it directly impacts the financial structure of a business. This can lead to something as simple as employees being offered fewer hours each week, or situations as dramatic as mass layoffs. When companies feel the pinch of a tough economy, it is only a matter of time before it trickles down to the employees.
When possible, assure all employees on a regular basis that their jobs are secure. Trimming hours is usually more preferable than the thought of losing a job altogether. Give as much advance warning as possible if there is the real possibility of having to let employees go. Not only does this give them time to prepare for the worst, it builds trust between them and the company.
2. Technological changes
The fast pace of the business world creates demand for companies to stay on top of technological advances. Huge changes that bring businesses more in line with the world’s operation can be intimidating to employees who may not be technologically inclined.
Ongoing training should be provided for employees who are struggling to learn how to operate new equipment and computer programs or systems. This provides necessary stress relief and helps keep conflicts to a minimum.
Tips to keep in mind
During the actual process of observing, analyzing, discussing, and finally resolving the process, there are a few things to keep in mind that might hopefully keep tensions from rising too high. We’ve already mentioned the first, but it bears repeating.
1. Listen carefully to determine the entire scenario, then troubleshoot
The key to finding a common point on which to agree is understanding. By paying attention to what the other person is saying and trying to learn what they really want, it’s much easier to determine which concessions will be worthwhile. Then, together, you can troubleshoot the issue accurately and form an effective solution.
2. Remain neutral
The instant you become combative or take an offensive stance, the other person will respond in kind. If communication breaks down to the point where neither side is listening to the other, then you will never find a solution that works. All of your energy will be spent fighting each other. Keeping a neutral tone and mindset, on the other hand, communicates that you are not trying to take something from anyone else. It boosts your credibility and significantly increases the likelihood that the other person will listen to what you have to say.
3. Make resolution the priority, not “winning” or “being right.”
It is all too easy to fall into the trap of assuming that the only way to solve a conflict is to “win.” Being so certain that your way is the only right way is a sure way to alienate the other person. People who feel that they are being ignored or talked down to will often dig in their heels. Instead, respect that the other person may have some good points himself and again, be willing to listen.
4. Focus on the situation at hand, not the past.
Assigning blame is focused on the past. The thing about the past, though, is that it’s already happened. It can’t be changed. It can’t be fixed. It can’t be undone. Holding a grudge or trying to figure out whose fault it is in the moment is counterproductive, clouding judgments and distracting from solving the real problem. While it is important to figure out what caused the conflict in the first place, doing so when faced with a conflict is not the ideal time.
When it comes to conflict, one of the best pieces of advice we can receive is to prepare ahead of time. Knowing the best way to interact with someone—whether that person is a customer, a coworker, a friend, or a family member—can help prevent escalating problems and keep a difficult situation from spiraling out of control. For in-depth training on how best to handle conflicts with other people, take a look at the conflict resolution training offered by Shapiro Negotiations, N.I.C.E. vs. Nasty – Dealing with Difficult People.