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4 strategies for dealing with workplace conflict - anything but the ostrich!

Picture of Simon Thiessen

Simon Thiessen

CEO, Lead Facilitator, Mediator - The Real Learning Experience

4 options for managing conflict in the workplace

Anything but the ostrich! 

When conflict occurs in your team it may be uncomfortable and sometimes unpleasant. However, responding appropriately and proactively to conflict in the workplace is a leadership responsibility.

There are four broad steps, and each may be appropriate depending on the circumstances – sometimes you will follow these as a sequence, other times you will go straight to a specific step. The reasons for this are outlined later in the article.

The four strategies are:

  1. Sit back and observe how the people involved in the conflict respond
  2. Get involved by talking individually with each of the people in the conflict 
  3. Bring the parties to the conflict together and help them find a solution
  4. Escalate or formalise the conflict by involving a more senior manager or even your People & Culture team

Effective leaders use each of these approaches, even those they are less comfortable with, and also know which to use and when.

Your attitude towards conflict

How do you personally feel about conflict?

And what do you perceive to be conflict?

Each of these are topics for separate articles, but your ability to use the four strategies depends on the answers – so we will do a quick overview here.

If you see conflict as a negative or bad thing, you are already in trouble. It is just not reasonable to expect a group of diverse people to come together and never disagree, have different ideas, or annoy each other. The only way to have no conflict is to suppress it – and that leads to a whole world of pain, but more on that another day.

What feels like conflict to you? Two people having a heated debate? Someone speaking up in a meeting to disagree with an idea? Someone politely objecting to the way another person has spoken to them? Having different opinions about an issue? The more you perceive as conflict, the more uneasy it will make you – and the more likely you are to avoid or supress it.

In a culture of Authenticity, conflict is embraced as essential and healthy – but Authentic Teams have developed processes for handling the conflict well rather than allowing it to become damaging.

Why can't people sort things out for themselves?

It’s really tempting for a leader to let people sort conflict out for themselves. After all, you have enough to do already and these people are adults. Why can’t they act like grown-ups and sort this out? It’s hard to argue with the logic behind that thought process – but unfortunately, logic isn’t the only factor at play. Resolving conflict requires strong emotional intelligence and self-management, positive conflict styles, and skilful communication and influencing skills. 

Let’s just say that a leader can’t rely on their people having everything they need when they find themselves in conflict

Strategy 1 - sit back and observe the conflict

This may sound like letting them sort it out for themselves – but is different in a key way. The observing approach is more proactive. Rather than ignoring workplace conflict, the observing leader is giving people an opportunity to resolve the issue – not because they should be able to but because it is better if they do.

When people who are in conflict reach a resolution themselves:

  • They have reinforced their skills and belief in their ability to have conflict in a healthy and safe way
  • The message for the broader team is that conflict is a good thing as long as it is dealt with well
  • The people who were involved in the conflict own the resolution because it wasn’t imposed on them

When we assess how healthy a team’s conflict culture is, avoidance of conflict is as bad as poorly handled conflict. If your people have the ability and the willingness to have vigorous but respectful discussions about differing ideas and opinions, your team will be more effective. However, there are some signs that you should intervene:

  • The conflict is not being resolved 
  • It is being resolved but other people are being impacted to an unacceptable level in the process
  • It seems likely be resolved but the conflict styles of the parties mean that the outcome is not equitable, sustainable or healthy

Under these circumstances, it is time to move to consider the second strategy.

Strategy 2 - coaching each of the people involved in the conflict

This is a good second step because you are still giving your team members the chance to resolve workplace conflict for themselves. The difference is that you are now helping them prepare for effective discussions. Don’t be intimidated by ‘coaching’ – think of it as a mindset rather than the formal skill that professional workplace coaches have.

This is how a coaching discussion might play out for a leader who is managing conflict in the workplace:

  • Talk privately and confidentially with one or all of the people involved in the conflict – you may repeat this for each of the people or speak to one individual because you feel they need more assistance
  • This discussion may be initiated by a team member coming to you with their concerns or by you after observing that the conflict isn’t being appropriately resolved
  • Discuss the person’s concerns and perspectives
  • Ask them to think about the issue from the other party’s perspective – what might their concerns be?
  • Make sure the person is aware of the conflict style they are using in this situation – which may be fairly habitual for them
  • Devise a strategy together for the steps that will be taken after this discussion, including how to have a discussion that is honest but not confrontational

If this discussion includes a lot of questions that have helped the person find their own solutions, you have been an effective coach. If it was mainly you talking – give information and instructions – you have probably imposed a solution rather than helping them create one.

Give the parties to the conflict an opportunity to take your coaching input and resolve the issues. If they don’t succeed, it is time to look at the next strategy.

Strategy 3 - facilitate a solution

This is when the temptation for leaders to sit people down and ‘lay down the law’ kicks in – telling them what the resolution will be and that they need to ‘grow up and move on’. Understandable – yes. Effective – no. Now, they are not only angry with each other, they are also annoyed with you. They won’t own the solution and will only do what they have to do – the surface issues often disappear but the underlying problems linger. Like weeding without pulling out the roots.

This is the time for ‘Leader as Facilitator’ to step up. Again, don’t be intimidated by being a ‘facilitator’. What it really means is that you bring people together and manage the framework and process in which they find solutions. You take responsibility for the framework – but they keep responsibility for the issue and for being willing to resolve it.

In your discussion – or over a series of discussions – you will need to cover the following:

  • Set some ground rules and expectations around communication and a focus on resolving the issue (rather than wallowing in it)
  • Give each person a chance to outline their perspective – but insist that it be kept factual and not personal
  • Make sure each person understands the other’s perspective even if they don’t agree with it
  • Lead an exploration of the issues so that everyone understands the full picture
  • Ask the participants to brainstorm solutions – just focus on getting as many options as possible
  • Ask which of the solutions could be workable from each perspective. It may not be possible to find an ideal solution for everyone – but there is usually some point that is acceptable all round
  • Once an acceptable solution is found, talk about how that will be followed through. Make sure any agreements made are clear to everyone

Recognise that this process may take a series of discussions – and that your role will vary. For example, if the people involved in the conflict are less willing or less resourceful in finding possible solutions, you may need to propose a few. 

If you have followed the first three steps and the parties to the conflict are still unable or unwilling to reach a resolution, they are starting to exhaust the options to resolve this without escalation.

Strategy 4: Formalise or escalate

One of the key principles for managing conflict in the workplace is to aim for a resolution at the lowest and least formal level that is appropriate under the circumstances. The more formal the process becomes and the further it is escalated, the more entrenched the conflict becomes. It is significantly less likely to be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction and the scars will be deeper and longer lasting.

Too often we see leaders use one of these ineffective approaches:

  • Ignore conflict
  • Pounce on conflict instead of giving people a chance to work through it
  • Escalate it too quickly. If you are responsible for supervising one or more people, you need to be responsible for managing workplace conflict – not just conveying it up the line

As a general principle, work through the four steps in the order we have written about them. Occasionally, you may decide to skip a step. Very occasionally, you may skip all the way to strategy 4 when there are specific legal, OH&S or safety issues.

This final step could involve you making and imposing a decision about the way the conflict will be dealt with – and requiring all parties to comply with that. It can also involve bringing in more senior managers; or involving internal or external experts such as People & Culture.

Hopefully your organisation has a process for you to follow if things get to this point – but do everything appropriate and possible to resolve the conflict before it gets this far.