Conflict Resolution: 6 Successful Strategies to Use at Work

Unresolved conflicts make for stressful workplaces and cost your organisation tens of thousands of pounds annually. So how can we help prevent these issues before they begin?

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Like death and taxes, conflicts are an unavoidable part of life. But in a workplace, it's imperative to avoid them as much as possible given the huge impact that disagreements can have on employee engagement and satisfaction.

Conflict in the workplace not only has an impact on the individuals experiencing it but also on the harmony (and profits) of the company as a whole. Reports indicate that workplace conflict costs UK employers £28.5 billion every year, an average of just over £1,000 for every employee.

That’s the last thing UK small business owners need right now – because truly, Brexit, pandemic challenges, the great resignation and the threat of economic downturn are all enough to deal with as it is.

So what can we do to avoid conflicts where we work and minimise their impact when they occur?

In this article, we’re going to share some strategies to help you reduce and resolve the chances of serious conflicts that will affect the bottom line. By the end, you will have an understanding of what conflict resolution is, what benefits it can bring to your workplace and how to achieve it.

What is Conflict Resolution?

Conflict resolution is a process of systems or strategies one can use to go about diffusing stressful or difficult situations between individuals.

This could take the form of interpersonal or written strategies and general guidelines that you may want to keep in a business continuity plan in case of emergency.

General guidelines are more appropriate over set rules because when it comes to conflicts, emotions tend to be involved, situations are rarely ever the same and most times there is grey area and nuance rather than immediately black-and-white, easily closed cases.

Why is it so important to resolve workplace conflict?

Whilst many business owners know they need to deal with conflict at work – be it for themselves or to help their employees maintain good relationships with each other – very few have conflict resolution processes in place. Maybe they don’t know where to get started with gaining the proper expertise and skills. Often they leave it too late to consider having any kind of strategy.

A strategy is important, however, because as mentioned above, conflict has the potential to seep into every process in an organisation. Unresolved conflicts can create a toxic workplace, a culture that harbours resentment and discontent, and can lead to staff quitting (quietly or otherwise); customers and stakeholders viewing the company in a bad light, and employees seeking to only look out for themselves. According to 2019 data from the CIPD, approximately 485,800 employees resign every year as a result of workplace conflict.

In some cases, having no formal strategy in place can lead to legal issues and compensation payments, too. ACAS studies conclude that the annual cost of employment litigation to employers amounts to approximately £800 million, with the current median settlement in 2018 being £5,000.

All of these things are less than ideal for any company that strives to run smoothly and maintain an efficient team.

What are the different types of conflict at work?

There are a few different types of conflict at work. For example, there can be personality-based conflict:

  • When an agreement cannot be reached between two parties
  • Where one party has expressed that they feel disrespected or unheard
  • When a verbal or physical conflict has occurred

And task based-conflict:

  • When there are disagreements about quality of work or team responsibilities
  • When there are differences in opinion, or styles of working
  • When one person feels like they are taking on the majority of the workload

Instances like these are when you’ll want to bring your conflict resolution plan or guidelines out to use.

Why does conflict at work occur?

There are many reasons conflicts at work can occur.

One big reason for workplace conflict is competition. This all depends on the organisational culture and what environment the company has cultivated. Some companies fail at creating an environment where everyone feels like they have opportunities for growth. This can create a sense of scarcity within the team and employees. Scarcity causes people to undercut each other and resort to negative tactics to get to what they want.

Example: Whilst everyone is competing against each other in performance-based environments such as a car dealership, setting clear boundaries and rewarding healthy competition is better for the long-term productivity and profit of a team.

Another very big reason is unclear expectations. When there is a breakdown of communication within a team or organisation it can lead to many misunderstandings and tensions as the workload becomes potentially unbalanced, employees all individually feel like they are the only ones pulling their weight, or the blame game begins when work is turned in late or not at all.

Example: This need not be a confrontation, even if has been in the past. You could simply ask: “Can I please have a written reminder of what is expected of me and how my performance is being assessed in this role?”

Even if you consider your company free from these problems, and you have systems and a culture where everything runs smoothly, general conflicts are inevitable from time to time simply due to human nature. Your employees will be around people from different age ranges, backgrounds and energies than their own. But fortunately, if everything else is in place, these types of conflicts are usually small, short-lived, and can be easily patched over in time.

How Do You Resolve Conflict in the Workplace?

Although conflicts as we’ve established can have very hard, and have considerable negative impacts on a company, the methods to resolve such conflicts are relatively simple and require soft skills to do so.

Conflict resolution skills to practice

Communicate your needs – Sometimes conflict can be more with ourselves than other people without us realising it, and that then gets projected onto others in volatile ways. This typically happens when we feel that our work isn’t being appreciated or our requests aren’t being met.

Example: If you feel you deserve more recognition for that project, share your efforts. If you feel you’ve earned a promotion, recommend yourself for one. It never hurts to advocate for yourself. Don’t be shy!

Don’t take anything personally – It can be tough to let certain things go when you’re sure you’re in the right about something only to be ignored, or a coworker talks over you in a meeting for example, but it’s important not to take these things personally – otherwise everything becomes an issue when it need not be. When you don’t take it personally, it makes it easier for things to be resolved quickly as opposed to creating issues simply for the sake of being right. Also, people are less inclined to personally attack you at work in this way than you think.

Example: Was this indisputably a personal attack on me, or could there be another explanation?

Practice empathy – It helps to take an objective view of things most of the time, instead of shrinking things down to one subjective lens that could be completely wrong. It’s important to remember that people are people, and we all have our own internal battles, struggles, worries, doubts and concerns running through our minds at full speed at all times. It would be the kind thing to extend some grace to someone who may simply be going through more than usual on this specific day.

Example: Have you considered putting yourself in the other person’s shoes and asking yourself why they may be acting the way they are?

Active listening – As well as simply trying to gauge how someone else is feeling, or the reasons behind their actions, you could simply have a chat with them and find out more. Sometimes, a conversation can go a long way. With active listening, your aim is to understand and truly hear the person, instead of simply waiting to respond. Everyone loves to be heard, which is what makes this a super effective way of resolving conflict.

Example: Repeating things back that someone has said to you (as long as it’s not too overused) can be an effective way for you to show them that you’re listening, but also to help you retain the information.

Avoid the blame game – Blame is an extremely toxic method of behaviour that is hard to come back from once you start it, and no one ever wins. It transfers from person to person, and before you know it everyone is pointing both fingers at each other, creating a horrible work environment and eroding all trust.

And the worst part? Sometimes you may not have all the facts, so if you immediately resort to blaming someone or assuming bad intentions and it turns out to be quite the opposite – a simple mistake, or you blaming the wrong person, the spotlight you tried to shine on someone else to humiliate them all comes back to you. Anything is better than starting the blame game – giving people grace and allowing for the benefit of the doubt is a much better strategy. It’s just not worth it!

Example: Using “I” instead of “you” statements can help in this area. For example, it’s better to say “I feel like my ideas weren’t being heard in the meeting” as opposed to: “You don’t listen to my ideas!”

Maintain strong boundaries. As a manager, you may want to separate two people who keep getting into conflicts with each other as a physical boundary if possible, as it may be possible that their personalities simply don’t mesh well together. As an individual, if you have a conflict with someone in the company, having strong boundaries will help you to disengage from any negative energy or invitations for negative discourse. Your ego is the thing that makes you want to argue and prove yourself, and strong boundaries will help you to detach and restrain yourself from having the reaction a person you’re in conflict with may want to evoke in you.

Example: Try your best to limit the time spent with anyone you feel is combative or negative with you, and if that doesn’t work, getting a neutral third party involved may be beneficial.

Conflict resolution strategies

There are specific conflict resolution strategies that you can use to help assuage any feelings of hostility and discontent within your company. You should decide which of these would work best for you, and then include them in your plan so that there is a clear conflict resolution process, with clear channels, so that everyone knows what to do should they have an issue.

This is a proactive plan that you can expect to use many times with many different people, and not something that will be collecting dust somewhere…it should be shared amongst everyone so they can feel assured that if there ever is an issue, they know they will be heard and fairly treated. These strategies will help you get it right:

Maintain fair standards and practices. Nothing upsets the collective more than witnessing someone else in their team receive favoured treatment and allowances or seeing that the rules (that others get punished for) do not apply to them. Additionally, you don’t want to have a company where the rules, values and practices are forever changing in a way that may seem unfair to people who were upholding the previous rules before. The fairer and more regimented you can keep your basic standards of running your company, in a way that everyone can manage and view as fair, the fewer issues you should have.

Practice what you preach. Employees are going to follow your lead, especially when they first start at your company so you want to make sure that you start early in cultivating positivity. Alternatively, employees will act out more if they see that you as the figurehead or your senior leadership team doesn’t dissuade (or worse, actively enjoys) all the diabolical chaos and dog-eat-dog nature within your company. According to a study by Gallup, 70% of team engagement is determined solely by the manager – so it starts with you. There are a couple different and inspiring leadership styles you can try today.

Resolve discontent swiftly. A great rule of thumb is to never allow anything to fester within your company. If something such as an argument or misunderstanding happens, it’s better to take some time to clear the air right away, and ideally in person between the parties. If this doesn’t happen it leaves the potential for resentments to build, more frustrations and potentially a culture of people talking behind each other's backs, as well as other forms of passive aggression and sabotage. It’s important to assure your employees that honesty and transparency will never be penalised as well, so they can feel safe enough to fully express their true feelings and thoughts and so the issue can be thoroughly handled.

Conclusion

All in all, putting together a conflict resolution strategy or plan is definitely worth the time, effort and practice needed. It has the potential to save you and your workplace from a myriad of different stresses and difficulties – most notably, the potential costs and staff turnover conflict can incur.

We’ve gone through some practical examples of a few different strategies here – ones you can try out and implement if successful – to ensure a productive, profitable and peaceful place of work.

Written by:
Stephanie Lennox is the resident funding & finance expert at Startups: A successful startup founder in her own right, 2x bestselling author and business strategist, she covers everything from business grants and loans to venture capital and angel investing. With over 14 years of hands-on experience in the startup industry, Stephanie is passionate about how business owners can not only survive but thrive in the face of turbulent financial times and economic crises. With a background in media, publishing, finance and sales psychology, and an education at Oxford University, Stephanie has been featured on all things 'entrepreneur' in such prominent media outlets as The Bookseller, The Guardian, TimeOut, The Southbank Centre and ITV News, as well as several other national publications.

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