Conflicts are inevitable consequences of human interactions. It is the result of someone’s goals and priorities being at odds with someone else’s. In the corporate world few conflicts arise because people have different goals though, instead they’re the product of people having different ideas on how to achieve common goals. Managing a conflict is a process of bringing parties together, realizing their common goals (or at least those not in conflict), and coming up with solutions which satisfy all parties. Sometimes conflicts can’t be fully resolved and one has to manage the situation for extended periods of time. In any case, having a framework for dealing with conflicts is an invaluable tool to have as it minimizes misunderstandings and aligns people towards common goals.
What is a conflict
In simple terms a conflict is when a person’s actions have a bothersome effect on someone else. The textbook definition of conflict is “an expressed struggle between at least two interdependent parties who perceive incompatible goals, scarce resources, and interference from others in achieving their goals.” In typical academic fashion, this definition is not only a mouthful, but choke full of meaning. Even then, it gives us a great starting point for discussing the topic and it will set the stage for how to handle conflicts in the workplace.
Let’s unpack the definition. It is an “expressed struggle” which means someone must be acting in a way that bothers someone else and the problem has to manifest in some fashion. It requires “at least two interdependent parties” because if the actions of one person doesn’t affect another then they can’t be in conflict. The parties must “perceive incompatible goals, scarce resources, and interference from others”, the keyword being “perceive” as the incompatibility or opposition doesn’t have to be grounded in an objective reality for two people to be in conflict. Finally their priorities and goals must be at stake, in other words they should care about the outcome of their interaction.
Managing conflicts in the workplace
Every company has a set of rules for handling interpersonal conflicts. They may not be codified but, based on the company’s culture, people generally know what to expect in those situations. Unfortunately what they can often expect is to stay silent and hope the situation gets better.
Within a company, the processes to handle conflicts can be explicit and implicit. The explicit ones are enforced via policies which detail the chain of command and events involved when an employee has a dispute to resolve. The implicit processes are less heavy handed because they can be resolved by the affected parties (maybe including a facilitator).
In general it’s best for employees to resolve conflicts themselves. You don’t want to be in the business of mediating every argument around the office. Everyone should be trained in dealing with conflicts and be capable of having direct discussions with the parties involved. You can promote and encourage this behavior by leading by example.
Companies should have explicit policies to address conflicts when the employees feel the informal process has failed them or they aren’t comfortable enough to mediate the situation for themselves. Employees need to know they can turn to their managers and supervisors with their problems, and be confident their issues will be taken seriously.
The way managers and supervisors deal with conflicts is very important for the productivity and morale of the company. The examples they set percolate throughout the organization and establish the implicit rules employees use for handling conflicts.
Avoid unnecessary conflicts
Even with the best intentions, without proper training managers can do a lot of damage when they try to work through conflicts. Everyday conflicts can accumulate and can do a lot of harm if not dealt properly. Many of the conflicts in the workplace can be avoided if managers stop doing things which promote unnecessary conflicts. An example is when they create needless competitive situations by not defining roles and areas of authority. This leaves plenty of room for interpretation of who’s in charge of what. Another is when managers take actions without consulting the affected parties. Not only does it create resentment but it’s counterproductive because the affected parties may have key information and insights about the situation which could improve the decision making process.
Deal with the conflicts openly and constructively
Left to their own devices, interpersonal issues tend to fester. Conflicts rarely work themselves out without intervention. Every situation is different but your organization should have a clearly defined process for people to voice their grievances and have those addressed by the company. This is typically done through managers and supervisors. You don’t want to be the arbiter of every issue your employees have. Instead you want to promote informal resolutions of problems. That said, you should be available to people and teams should they need you. If you get involved, do so openly and constructively. You don’t want to call an assembly to discuss issues between two employees, but tackle the issue head on without beating around the bush. Sensitive matters should, of course, be handled with care and privacy in mind.
It can be difficult to see the conflicts as they arise. Managers typically find out about them when it gets so bad people around the company start talking about it. This is why it’s critical to maintain open lines of communication with your employees and teams. One on ones are a great tool to get a pulse on the teams, one person may not be inclined to talk about a conflict but someone else on the team might. Another way you can keep your ears on the ground is to talk to your team leads and other people who work with the teams on a daily basis.
Be honest about organizational culture and climate
A company’s culture is how things are actually done in the company. The climate is how people feel about working and being there. You have to be honest about the culture and climate you really have, as opposed to what you hope for them to be. When it comes to conflicts around the office and how they’re handled, you want to start by acknowledging the issues and come up with solutions to nudge the company in the desired direction. Keep in mind that you can’t control the culture and climate of a workplace, but at least you can influence it.
In our hyper-competitive society there’s the pervasive notion that conflicts are zero sum games. That the only way for someone to gain something or have their concerns addressed is for someone else to give up on something they value. This isn’t true in most situations but especially so in the workplace. For the most part, employees want to do a good job, they want to build the best products or services, and they want the company to succeed. Under this frame, conflicts within the workplace become misunderstandings of goals. The next time you encounter a conflict, start with the common goals shared by the affected parties and the process will go much smoother. Most of the time people within an organization share the same goals but disagree on how to achieve them.
You can look at conflicts in the workplace as a way to discuss new ways to achieve common goals. Employees oftentimes confound the means for the ends; they fixate on a solution and mistake it for the actual goal. The solution is to get them to recognize it’s not a competition, the difference between the means and the ends, and promote the discussion of possible solutions.
The classic book “Getting to Yes” popularized the term principled negotiation, an interest-based approach to negotiation which can be summarized with “the goal is to achieve a win-win situation”. It focuses on working towards common goals instead of positions. The methodology has been criticized in the business world for being too idealistic, but it is without a doubt an excellent starting point when managing a conflict and you’ll be much better off by adhering to its principles.
Aim for a win-win situation
People are conditioned to think of conflicts in an adversarial way, that is, a conflict has winners and losers (competitive conflicts). But people often forget there are other types of conflicts. With a bit of imagination you can think of an outcome where both parties achieve their goals, this is called a pure conflict or one where a win-win situation can be reached. For the sake of completeness, you can also have a lose-lose situation, and then the most insidious one: compromises (or no win-no lose). Many people see compromises as a good thing, so much that they aim for compromises right from the start of a negotiation. Think about it this way, when you aim for a compromise, you’re aiming not to win. Always aim for a win-win and only settle for a compromise when all alternatives have been exhausted.
In the workplace where employees have the same goals but only differ in the way to achieve them, reaching a win-win situation is much easier than in other settings. When you manage a conflict at work, emphasize the shared goals and see how both parties can reach them. Try to treat conflicts as challenges to work with the other person in achieving the shared goal.
- Only settle for a compromise if you really can’t get a win-win.
- In most situations people’s goals aren’t in conflict.
- What people say they want at first is typically not what they’re truly interested in.
Separate people from the problem
When managing a conflict you should concentrate on the facts; the events and behaviors occurred, not the parties involved. You should focus on the problems, not the people. Don’t assign intentions or motivations to someone’s actions, instead concentrate on how those actions affect others and the company. Remember, a conflict is a problem to be resolved by all parties involved. For example, instead of thinking “this person is X, therefore Y happens” (which makes the person themself the problem), you should think “this person does X, and then Y happens”. That way the person isn’t the problem, they’re part of the solution.
- Focus on the events and behaviors, not the parties involved (“when you do X, Y happens”).
- Clarify and understand people’s perceptions.
- Recognize emotions on all sides.
Focus on interests, not positions
This goes at the heart of a win-win resolution. People often confound their interests with their positions or stance on things. A person’s interest refers to the reason behind their actions. It is the underlying thing they are trying to gain or avoid, what is stimulating or bothering them. A position is one of many ways to achieve a goal. People would think of a way (position) to achieve what they want and then conflate the position with their goal. Then they would end up bargaining for a position they don’t really care but are emotionally invested in. To get to the interests and goals, ask why you or someone else is advocating for a certain position. What are they actually trying to get? An example is someone asking to move their desk to another part of the building; that’s their position. If you ask them why they want to do that they might say because it’s too dark where they are. Now you’re getting to what they really want. Moving the desk is just one of many ways to achieve their goal.
- Advocate for people’s interests and goals, not particular positions.
- Ask questions to understand their (and your own) interests.
Generate options for win-win situations
When presented with a problem, most people think of a solution and become attached to it. This leads to focusing on the positions, not interests. Instead you want to generate as many options as possible. Start by generating options to solve the problem and satisfy the parties involved. Your emphasis should be on solutions that generate mutual gain, but just because the solutions may not benefit both parties at the same time, it doesn’t mean they’re not useful. There is room for multiple solutions which aren’t in conflict. Also engage in “what if” scenarios, where the solutions are contingent on changing the circumstances. You may find favorable solutions which only depend on trivial things to change.
- There are many ways to meet people’s interests.
- Don’t get stuck on particular positions.
- Brainstorm many ideas without objecting to any of them.
Decide based on an objective criteria
Now that you have many options on the table, it’s time to decide what to do. You want to define some kind of objective criteria you can use to determine what makes a solution better than another. Things you can measure in some fashion make for the best criterias. It’s okay, even desirable, to select multiple options which satisfy the criteria, it means more ways to achieve wins out the conflict.
- Analyze how well each option advances everyone’s interests.
Conflict management framework
You now have a set of principles to uphold and best practices to follow when managing a conflict, but how do you apply them? The goal of this section is to provide you with a system you can follow and adapt when you’re involved or mediating a conflict. Think of it as a conflict management checklist.
Research the situation
When managing a conflict you must resist the temptation of hearing one side of the story and act as if that’s the whole truth to the situation, especially if you’re one of the parties involved. Step zero is to get everyone’s perspective of the situation. Your job at this point is to shut up and listen. Don’t give opinions, take sides, or pass judgement on someone or the situation. Your goal is to get a clear view of what’s going on, not to solve the issue.
Conflicts make communication harder so you must pay special attention and focus on what’s being said. Remember there’s always a difference between the information one person intends to transmit and the information perceived by the person receiving it. Ask for clarifications, paraphrase the message, and ask the person to clarify what they’re saying. These are things you can do to better understand the information the other person is trying to convey.
Part of researching the situation is acknowledging the emotions involved. People don’t process things in a vacuum and there are always emotions attached to the events. You want to recognize everyone’s feelings and preferably wait until they’ve been subdued. In your own introspection, breathe, calm down, ask yourself why you’re feeling this way.
Define the issues in terms of behaviors
After doing the research, you should have a fairly accurate picture of the situation. The next step is to separate the people from the problem by clearly defining what’s bothering each of the parties in terms of behaviors. Note what each party is doing that’s causing discomfort in the other. It may seem obvious but write down why these behaviors are bothersome to the other party. Refrain from stating the problem in terms of someone’s emotions or attitudes. It’s easier to change someone’s behavior than it is to change their attitudes (and behaviors change the way we feel). Remember: emotions are non-negotiable. It’s not like you can reason with someone into feeling a different way. Similarly, refrain from attributing the issue to someone’s character (“this person is X”). If you state a problem as an innate attribute of a person then there’s very little that person can do to change. Once you identify a behavior, you want to make sure it is one of the culprits of the conflict. This can be done by asking “if this behavior were to change, would that resolve the conflict? Would it change anything”. You don’t want to bark up the wrong tree. So identify the behavior that’s actually causing the discomfort.
There are two templates you can use to define the issues in terms of behaviors:
“When you do X, I feel Y.”
“You’re doing X, and that’s a problem because Y.”
Define the goals of resolving the issues
It’s time to be honest about your goals and manage your expectations regarding the outcomes of the negotiation. This is a time for introspection, think about your interests, and try to separate them from your positions. You want to negotiate your interests, not your positions. Ask yourself why you want to resolve the conflict and what would be a good resolution for you. It could be that after identifying the issues in terms of behaviors you don’t believe the behavior will continue and yet you want closure in the form of an apology. Keep in mind there are multiple types of goals when resolving a conflict. Goals can be categorized as topic, relational, identity, and process (TRIP). Topic goals refer to the tangible things you want, what to do, where to go, how the resources are to be used, etc. Relational goals refer to the interactions between the affected parties, how they treat each other, and how they want to be treated. Identity goals refer to how the parties perceive each other and how they want to be perceived by others. Process goals refer to the way the parties go about resolving their issues, hopefully with a system like the one you’re reading. In this step you want to think about these categories as you’re analyzing the situation and figuring out what you want out of this negotiation.
Select the issues that need to be dealt with
Not everything has to be dealt with at the same time so use the 20/80 rule to see what will give you the best return on your investment. You want to consider your position in the situation, what’s the nature of your relationship with the other parties, what you have to lose, what you have to gain, the risks involved in the negotiation. Take responsibility for your decision. Whether the negotiation goes well or not, you have to own the result knowing you did your best to resolve the conflict. If you decide not to negotiate for any reason (maybe after analyzing the situation you don’t think it’s worth negotiating) then you can’t be mad about the behaviors that bother you if they persist; after all, you’ve decided not to raise the issue with the other parties. They’re not deciding to continue doing something that bothers you, you’ve decided to live with it. Consider taking the small conflicts which don’t seem to be worth negotiating and turn them into opportunities to practice conflict management and to strengthen the relationship. Be honest with the other person about your motivations (“I know this is small but I want to practice conflict management for a time when the stakes are higher”). The other person needs to agree to the process, since you can’t negotiate by yourself.
Arrange to meet with the parties involved
Avoid lingering and not meeting with the parties. You don’t want to rush things, so take your time to reflect on the situation, but at the same time you don’t want to avoid dealing with the conflict, hoping it will just work itself out. Keep in mind the other person probably hasn’t put in as much thought into the situation as you have. You can’t just walk up to someone and start negotiating. It’s best if you do this in real time, in person or over a phone call. You want to arrange a meeting with the other person by clearly stating the purpose of it. Approach the other person directly and privately. Refer to the issue as a problem to be resolved by both parties. State the issue(s) as you’ve defined it earlier and avoid creating an air of mystery around the issue or meeting. Be sure to give them time to process the request and to prepare for the meeting. When you approach the other person they might want to try to resolve the issue on the spot. This is okay as long as you’re both being honest about the time you have available at the moment. It’s tempting to think you can resolve an issue in 10 minutes before another meeting but resist the urge to “get this over with”. If they take this as an opportunity to put forth their issues, then agree to talk about them but only after you’ve dealt with your issues (you approached them in the first place with yours).
Meet with the other parties
It’s your meeting so you should come prepared and drive the agenda. Be cordial and respectful, and thank the other person for meeting with you. State the purpose of the meeting and explain the problem as you did when you requested the meeting. Given all the preparation you’ve done it’s easy to assume the other party will agree with your analysis and solutions, but that would be a mistake in many ways. Even if you’ve researched the situation, the other person may have more information relevant to it, you probably haven’t heard their point of view and feelings, and you haven’t given them the chance to propose their own solutions. Come prepared with possible solutions but be prepared to listen to the other person and their solutions.
As in the previous step, if the other person wants to talk about other issues you should agree to discuss them at another time, maybe after this meeting. Right now is the time to talk about your issue. If they ask why not talk about their issue, you can flat out respond because you asked them to talk about your issue first. It may take more than one meeting to resolve the conflict, especially if the other party brings their issues, so be ready if that’s the case. In any setting where feelings and emotions are present, the conversation will tend to be repetitive. People will explain things over and over again. Be mindful of that and stay on task, focus on the events, mutual interests, goals, and possible solutions. You can even call out the fact that the point has been made.
The agenda of this meeting should be driven by the principled negotiation approach: Aim for a win-win situation, separate the people from the problem, focus on people’s interests not their positions, generate options for mutually beneficial solutions, and decide based on an objective criteria.
Create an agreement
At this point you should have a list of actionable items you both can do to resolve the conflict, this will be the core of the agreement, or contract, both parties will make. Work together to create a list of the actionable items each of you is going to follow through. It must be clear and unequivocal about the volunteering behaviors to be performed by the parties. The next step is to read it to the person to make sure you’re both on the same page. Don’t accept “maybes” and “I’ll try” as they’re signs that something isn’t well defined, either the problem or the agreed upon solution. If that happens, probe to find out why they feel ambivalent about the actions they should take. Once you have an agreement setup a follow up with each other after a certain period of time, say two weeks.
Follow up on the agreement
Each party is responsible for following through with the agreement. If you have things to do as part of the agreement then you must set the example and do your part. You should monitor the situation and see that the other party complies. You can’t breathe on their shoulders but you shouldn’t assume the other person will comply either, so pay attention (trust but verify). Praise people and show your appreciation for following through with their end of the deal. Positive feedback is a powerful tool, it increases morale, and encourages the other person to continue what they’re doing. Without positive feedback to reinforce their good behavior, they will most likely go back to the habits which created the bad behaviors in the first place. If their behavior doesn’t change then arrange another meeting to discuss the situation. If you’re making progress then continue the course, but if the other person isn’t willing or able to change then you must make the tough decision to escalate, end the relationship, or accept the status quo.
Once a relationship is damaged it can’t go back to the way it was, but oftentimes it can transform into a new kind of normal. First step for fixing a relationship is to define the offending behaviors. Stuff doesn’t just happen, someone did something to somebody. Talk to the person to make amends and try to fix the relationship. You don’t have to dwell on the past but you do have to acknowledge it. Tell the other person what you’ll do to make amends, not and in the future, and move forward. Life goes on.
There are a few things to keep in mind when resolving a conflict. You don’t want to close lines of communication. It’s tempting to “resolve” the issue by not talking to a person; this would be a kind of avoidance. Another pitfall is to leave a lingering sense of opposition and resentment. This usually happens when people don’t take the time to fix the relationships. Related to that, you want to avoid creating taboo subjects; unresolved things you’d rather not discuss with the affected parties. You don’t have to manufacture drama in order to talk about it, but if there’s something to be discussed then it should not be avoided.
Strategies to avoid
Many people develop coping mechanisms for dealing with conflicts. Some work better than others but what they have in common is that they don’t manage or resolve the conflicts. Here are some strategies to avoid.
This is when someone tries to resolve a conflict with a third party instead of addressing the issues directly with the parties involved. Avoid becoming that third party as you try to facilitate conflicts between other people. It’s okay to mediate a conflict as long as the position is that of coaching the parties on how to resolve the conflict, not one of resolving the conflict yourself. The harms of triangulation aren’t immediately obvious but as time passes cliques form, adversity rises, and morale declines.
You should avoid compromising as the default expectation of a conflict. It is the easy way out of a conflict but in most cases the parties can reach a better solution for both of them, a win-win resolution. Compromising should be the last resort after doing the legwork of trying to find a solution where both parties don’t have to settle for less.
The most common way avoidance happens is when people wait and hope the problem will go away, or for people to change their behaviors without solicitation. This is wishful thinking because inertia is a powerful force; people have no reason or incentive to change their behavior if they don’t know it’s causing problems.
This is a specific kind of avoidance where the person reduces or eliminates their interactions with another party to avoid managing the conflict. Oftentimes the other person gets the wrong impression because, as far as they know, everything is fine and suddenly this person is avoiding them.
It may be tempting to exercise one’s power over a situation and, with little to no input from the other party, impose a resolution to a conflict. This strategy may be appropriate when immediate action is required and a decision must be made but, it should be used with caution because it may cause resentment and decrease morale.