How many times have you seen your marketing and sales teams down each other’s throats? How about angry teammates who refuse to even be in the same room?
Conflicts at workplaces are not a rarity — happens everywhere, and are unavoidable. But, what happens after the conflict makes all the difference.
As the team lead, you’d want to take conflict resolution very seriously. Nobody can get a team to function when they do not get along with one another.
This article will help you understand the causes of conflicts at workplaces and ways to build conflict resolution skills.
We will also give you a low-down on the various conflict resolution strategies. Let’s dive right in.
Causes of conflicts at workplaces
Humans are instinctive and emotional. Even a casual shrug of the shoulders is enough to create tensions. So, before we get into conflict resolution, let’s first learn more about the causes of conflicts at workplaces.
1. Personality clashes
As long as robots don’t take over, every employee in an organization won’t be the same. You can’t expect everyone to get along without frictions. Clashes, no matter how much you hate them, are inevitable.
Most workplace clashes happen due to the fundamental incompatibility between personalities. It could be down to a variety of reasons — the difference in their school of thought, upbringing, value systems, attitude towards work, and more.
Often, these clashes lead to public confrontations and arguments. It can also unfold in more subtle ways – an employee withdrawing from a discussion due to a colleague, an employee taking more sick leaves, and so on.
2. The fight or flight response
It is a coping mechanism our body has developed to overcome physically or mentally challenging situations. When we are in a tough spot, certain hormones are released that prepare our body to either stay and deal with the threat or to run away to safety.
The fight or flight response is a hard-wired human survival instinct. It is meant to help us cope with life-threatening situations. Now it gets activated when we are put in stressful situations.
This often happens at workplaces when a co-worker confronts us about something. Meaning, we will either flee the scene somehow or defend ourselves by yelling back at them.
3. Trigger words
Every word has a literal meaning — and then there are words with strong emotional connections. Everytime you hear or read the word, it triggers a memory or a particular feeling.
For example, an employee might not like the word ‘slow’ because they were bullied in school for being a slow learner. Such words can easily trigger an aggressive reaction.
When such words get thrown around in the workplace, it is very easy for things to go sideways and end up in conflicts.
4. Bad experiences
It is not easy to forget bad experiences — they cloud our judgment and we tend to base our future decisions on them.
For instance, if you couldn’t get along with employees from a certain institution, you form an opinion that everyone from that college is difficult.
Such sweeping generalizations often end in clashes, as we are stubborn about our opinions.
5. Being suppressive
We feel suppressed when our expressions are shunned or when someone doesn’t pay attention. This creates unrest and discontent. As time passes, it will turn into animosity, ultimately leading to clashes.
6. Lack of clarity
Imagine you are in charge of a sales team. A teammate closes a massive deal without consulting you and offered a discount of 25%. You rebuke him and he retorts saying there weren’t any explicit instructions about it. And it turns into a full-blown argument.
Such conflicts stem from the lack of clarity. If you had clearly briefed him or if he had confirmed with you, it wouldn’t have happened.
7. Policy changes
Frequent policy changes are not easy to take. Imagine telling employees there is a provision to work from home, only to revoke it a couple of weeks later. Employees are bound to feel a little hard done by. More often than not, this creates a toxic feeling inside them.
All of us have come across colleagues who are hyper-competitive — it breeds arrogance more often than not. Such behavior can, and will, rub off co-workers the wrong way.
Now that we know what causes conflicts at workplaces, it is time to learn how you can prevent or resolve them.
What is conflict resolution?
Conflict resolution, by definition, is the process by which parties in disagreement can come to a peaceful solution.
Conflict resolution cannot be achieved by pressuring people. That’s a short-term solution. It creates pent-up tension, and eventually, it will just ruin any kind of trust and rapport present between the two conflicting parties.
Instead of pressuring them to give in, you need to learn to resolve these conflicts amicably.
How to develop conflict resolution skills
Being a people-person is not enough to be good at conflict resolution. It requires a multi-pronged approach. You have to improve your communication skills, listening skills, negotiation skills, and your knowledge of employees.
1. Practice active listening
Active listening is a communication technique that involves paying attention, withholding judgment, reflecting, clarifying, summarizing and sharing.
You have to dedicate your full concentration to what the speaker is saying. Here are a few ways to develop your active listening skills:
- Maintain eye contact with the speaker all through the conversation.
- Make sure to have the conversation in a distraction-free environment – no checking Whatsapp or Slack.
- Sit with an open body posture, and lean forwards towards the speaker.
- Train yourself to quietly listen during conversations and then, restate the speaker’s message – shows you were listening, and that you understood their perspective.
- Don’t interrupt while they are talking, wait for them to finish.
- Take notes.
2. Talk to people of different backgrounds
“Without empathy, we can’t get to conflict resolution, altruism, or peace” ~ Mary Gordon
Being empathetic is the first step in conflict resolution. It calms everyone down and helps you chart out a reasonable course of action.
An excellent way to develop empathy is to regularly talk to people from different backgrounds.
You get a good understanding of their daily life, the problems they face, their routine, and more. And when a conflict arises, you will be to interact and deal with them effectively.
For example, when you are familiar with the problems your finance team faces on a daily basis, you are in a better position to relate with them or understand the gravity of a situation.
3. Witness it first hand
Case-studies, online demo videos, and role-plays will give you a first-hand experience of how to resolve conflicts.
Encourage yourself to identify (a) what they did right, (b) what went wrong, and (c) how the actors could have handled things differently.
4. Separate the people from the problem
When you are negotiating, separate the persons involved from the problem, and then, engage with the issues individually.
This’ll help you stay non-judgemental and not let your feelings influence your decisions. When the focus is on the problem, there are more chances of the parties collaborating with you.
Conflict resolution strategies
There are multiple angles to conflict resolution:
- Mediating a conflict
- When you are involved in a conflict
- Trying to prevent conflicts
A) Mediating a conflict
Truth be told, most of us consider mediating a conflict as a waste of time. We have better things to do, isn’t that right?
If we go in with this kind of an approach, we are setting ourselves up to fail. However, if you don’t address it, the bickering will get worse and lead to a very toxic environment.
Here are a few strategies to help you with conflict resolution:
1. Make the conflict resolution meetings count
Productive meetings go a long way toward resolving conflicts. As the mediator, you have to turn the focus away from the problem and towards the solution. The key to it: prepare well, create a great atmosphere, and act as a guide/facilitator.
A few tips to help you:
- Schedule meetings in a way that both the parties have enough time to process their thoughts. Give them two or three days to prepare.
- Use an informal, empathetic, and friendly tone in your invitations. Phrases like ‘I know it’s been difficult’, ‘I completely understand’, and words like ‘us’, ‘we’ will help you with that.
- Be clear about (a) why the meeting has been organised, (b) what are you looking to achieve from it, (c) who will be involved, (d) where will it be held (e) the expected duration of the meeting, (f) your role, and (g) how they should come prepared for it.
- Ask them to think creatively and come up with a number of ideas for resolving the conflict.
- Gain their trust by assuring confidentiality of the meeting. Tell them the matters discussed won’t be made public or recorded.
- Select a neutral and private location for the meeting. It shouldn’t be your office either, makes it look like a disciplinary action.
- Don’t act like a manager. When employees see you as a facilitator or a guide, they are more likely to speak openly and thoughtfully.
2. Find a common ground
I can already imagine you rolling your eyes and going ‘yeah, right’. How can you expect to find a common ground when people are at each other’s throats? The simple answer is – yes, you can!
Let’s look at a scenario: the sales manager and the dev. team lead of your SaaS company are involved in a conflict. The reason – the sales manager is insistent on building certain new feature, but the dev team rejected the idea.
The dev. team lead believes they won’t be able to dedicate enough resources to it. The sales manager is insistent because many customers have requested for the same feature. Additionally, he feels with Black Friday coming up, it could be a great selling point.
So, how do you find a common ground in this case?
- Start by finding out as much as you can about them – the values they stand for, their school of thought, and so on.
- Learn what they think about the conflict issue – their questions, concerns, favorable outcomes, and so on.
- Lastly, look for any overlap in perspectives or the things they agree on, and make it the base for the resolution process.
In our example, it could be that both the individuals agree on offering something special for Black Friday. Use that to bring both parties to the discussion table.
3. Look for false assumptions and uncover them
We make assumptions all the time, it makes our lives easier. For example, when we see a teammate worried and frequently walking out talking on their phone, we assume they’ve got some personal problems. And that will influence our interactions with them, we’ll be far more cautious and considerate.
Things go wrong when we make false assumptions based on misconceptions and inaccurate information. In workplaces, acting on or perpetuating assumptions by sharing it with others can easily end up creating or escalating conflicts.
For example, if there is a rumor going around that the finance team is showing favoritism toward the sales team, every decision of theirs will be scrutinized by other teams to prove their point.
When you are mediating a conflict, it is up to you uncover these kinds of false assumptions:
- Listen to both sides of the story without making any judgments.
- Keep asking them questions. It opens up their mind to multiple possibilities and explores what went wrong in that situation
- Enforce a no-gossip rule in the office. In case anybody wants to vent their feelings, listen to them.
Clearing up misconceptions makes it easier for people to see how their interests align.
It’s important to make sure you aren’t making any false assumptions yourself. Proper preparation is the key to avoiding this. Do your research and make sure your facts are correct.
4. Root cause analysis
Mediation doesn’t always mean you have to find solutions. Sometimes, it is about finding the root cause of the conflict and eliminating it.
Imagine this scenario: your support team lead and one of the agents are not on good terms. This has dramatically reduced the productivity of the team. The team lead believes the agent has a condescending attitude while the agent thinks that the team lead is a micromanager.
After sitting down with both the parties, you realized that:
(a) the agent doesn’t always copy the team lead when replying to support emails despite explicit instructions to do so.
(b) the team lead keeps sending emails to agents on how to deal with customer emails.
Basically, the conflict stems from poor email management and lack of delegation options in the email. So, how do you eliminate this problem?
Remember, every conflict has an underlying problem. As the mediator, you have to identify it, separate it from the parties involved, and aim to eliminate it.
B) When you are also a party to the conflict
If you are a business owner or a team lead, you are bound to get into conflicts with your teammates. If you haven’t, well, you must have some secret mind control powers.
Here are a few conflict resolution strategies that you can adopt:
5. Take precautions to stop things from getting heated
Self-control is a big asset when you are involved in a conflict. The ability to stay in control of your emotions will help ensure that you don’t indulge in ‘stirring the pot’ behavior such as making threats, shouting, preaching, sarcasm, mocking, etc.
Not everyone on this planet is blessed with great self-control. But the good thing is that you can develop it. From a conflict resolution point of view:
- Don’t schedule a meeting if you are angry. Cool yourself down before finalizing the meeting time.
- Instead of focusing on the person, keep your mind on the values that need to be upheld. For example, if the employee is angry about being micromanaged, your focus should be on the value – freedom.
- Identify things you are sensitive about. Make sure you have a response ready for that.
- Don’t interrupt someone while they’re talking. Wait for them to finish.
- Have a confidante with whom you can be completely honest with. Ask them to help you identify why people are upset.
6. Hire a third party to resolve the conflict
Hiring a third party will ensure there are no allegations of bias. They shouldn’t be from your network or your opponent’s. It should be someone both parties trust to be fair.
Here are a few things a third party mediator can help you with:
- Use their specialized knowledge in the domain to come to a better decision
- Come up with win-win alternatives
- Find out how a compromise can be achieved
- Sit down with both parties, and offer an unbiased assessment of the situation
- Create a safe environment for the meeting
- Make sure both parties act in a dignified manner during the meeting
- Preventing any party from feeling that it’s ‘losing face’
C) Preventing conflicts
Conflicts will happen no matter what, but you can always reduce the chances of it happening. Better safe than sorry, right?
Here are a couple of strategies to prevent conflicts:
7. Have multiple resolution points
Whether you are a small business owner or a team lead, you can’t resolve every conflict by your organization or team by yourself. Here’s why:
- You have to spend far too much time on conflict resolution.
- If you are party to the conflict – will make it difficult for you to stay unbiased.
- You might not have the specialized knowledge required to resolve the conflict issue.
- It will not help build a transparent and democratic work atmosphere.
This is why it is crucial to create multiple resolution points. Different points can cater to different issues. For example, an HR supervisor should be allowed to handle salary related issues, a supervisor from the finance team for budget-related issues, and so on.
If your organization is very small, hire an external party like a coach or a mentor to solve these conflicts.
8. Training employees
On an average, employees lose 2.1 hours and managers about 20 percent of their time to conflict resolution. This is why it is so important to train your employees in conflict resolution.
When employees are also trained in conflict resolution, the chances of them entering into conflicts will be significantly less. You can train your employees in conflict resolution by organizing group collaboration activities, role-plays, simulations, etc.
Always remember, unresolved conflicts have a direct impact on your and your team’s productivity. It leads to unfulfilled potential. That’s something small businesses owners or team leads cannot afford.
Conflicts create divisions between departments, teams, and individuals. The above-listed strategies will help you bridge this divide and create closeness. Eventually, it will help build trust and a safe work environment where people are not afraid to express themselves.