Resolving conflicts in teams

Workplace conflicts are an unwanted, yet unavoidable part of the working experience. Wherever there are people working together, sooner or later there is bound to be disagreements. 

For obvious reasons, this area of professional endeavor has been the subject of exhaustive research. There is a variety of theories and proposed solutions to workplace conflict resolution, but one fundamental thing is universally accepted: the question is not how to prevent conflict, but how to approach it once it does occur. In fact, some experts even see conflict as positive, an opportunity to make teams more cohesive and productive. 

Over the following lines, we will examine how and why workplace conflicts take place, how to properly identify conflicting situations and resolve them in ways that don’t jeopardize the work of the team.

Conflict resolution is not a uniform paint-by-numbers technique. The manner in which we approach conflict is greatly dependent on the context — what is the cause of the disagreement, who are the involved parties, what are their personal characteristics, etc.  Therefore, in order to properly address the situation, we must first understand it. 

Let’s take a look at the most common types of conflicts in the workplace.

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Types of workplace conflicts

Organizational conflict can be defined as a disagreement over or opposition to interests or ideas. Workplace conflicts appear in many shapes and forms, but they can all be placed into either substantive or emotional categories.

Substantive conflicts

Substantive conflicts take place when the involved parties disagree over strategic or operational issues — goals, actions towards achieving those goals, allocation of resources, etc. For instance, team members disagreeing over the marketing strategy for the rollout of a new product, or over the introduction of new software which some may consider disruptive or unnecessary would be considered substantive conflicts. This type, compared to emotion-based conflicts, is more likely to result in a positive outcome, as it is rooted in rational, practical matters with a far less emphasized emotional component. 

Emotional conflicts

Emotional conflicts are interpersonal disagreements that stem from negative emotions such as anger, fear, mistrust, dislike, resentment, and so on. While the nature and the cause of the conflict may or may not be explicitly stated, all emotional conflicts carry a note of personal animosity from at least one of the participants. 

What causes conflict?

Causes of workplace conflicts are too numerous and diverse to even try to fully encapsulate. However, we will highlight several of the most common roots of disagreements in the workplace. 

Adversity

Times of hardship (economic or otherwise) are a great cause of stress, which can lead many team members to conflict. On the other hand, hard times can also bring team members closer together, and conflicts in times of adversity can turn into opportunities to increase team cohesion. 

Limited resources

One of the most common causes — in the workplace and beyond — is the desire for the proverbial piece of the pie. If the piece in question cannot be shared among those aspiring to it (for instance, a leadership position), this can easily result in conflict. 

Poor communication

Workplace conflicts often arise from misunderstandings stemming from faulty communication skills. Something that’s said can be misinterpreted, and something left unspoken can be taken for hostility. Vast experience has revealed a fairly direct correlation between underdeveloped communication skills and the likelihood of engaging in conflict

Prejudice

The perceived differences based on nation, race, religion, sex, class, belief systems, or any general preferences, are a common cause of conflict (and, in the opposite case, a common cause of alliances). The more we are opposed to what a person represents, the more likely we are to be opposed to their specific actions in the workplace. 

Environment

Environmental factors such as heat, humidity, noise, or smells,  can create and/or heighten negative emotional states, thus predisposing team members to conflict. 

Health

Illness and general weariness, as well as any other suboptimal physical states, can significantly decrease our tolerance, leading to heightened states of agitation that can easily spill over into open conflict.  

Can conflict be a good thing?

While we may intuitively presume that conflict stands against the values of teamwork and collaboration, that may not necessarily be the case. In fact, avoidance of conflict for the sake of diplomacy and the maintenance of a semblance of harmony will almost unavoidably lead to greater conflict further down the road. Failing to acknowledge and address a conflict will not make it go away — it will only postpone and potentially feed its escalation. 

On the other hand, addressing conflict in a respectful and constructive manner can produce significant benefits for the team as a whole. Some of those benefits include:

  • Release of pressure and frustration;
  • Increased understanding of others and ourselves;
  • Improved decision-making and problem-solving capacities;
  • Increased team cohesiveness;
  • Minimization of complacency;
  • Appreciation of differences;
  • Introduction of change.

How to resolve workplace conflicts

As we have established, there are many different types, causes, and contexts of workplace conflict. If we wish to approach conflict resolution in the most optimal manner, we cannot utilize the same approach for every situation. Instead, we need to understand the situation to the best of our abilities and adjust our approach accordingly. 

Individuals attempting to reach a positive resolution of a conflict can choose to perform a number of actions (or inactions) to achieve that goal. Those actions are:

  • Avoidance of action: letting things simmer down with time, as well as ignoring insults or threats;
  • Withdrawal: “walking away from the table”;
  • Domination: asserting power over other involved parties;
  • Capitulation: giving in to the other side;
  • Unilateral power play: resorting to violence, disobedience, or intrigue;
  • Referral up the chain of command: involving senior management;
  • Negotiation: attempting to reach an agreement through compromise and finding common ground ;
  • Mediation: involving a third party in an advisory capacity;
  • Arbitration: involving a third party with decision-making powers;
  • Litigation: courtroom proceedings.

Above stated actions are “tools” that constitute different conflict management styles that can each be utilized depending on the specific circumstances of a conflict. Let’s take a look at the most common conflict management styles and assess the situations for which they are best suited. 

Conflict management styles

Renowned conflict analysts Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann have developed a model that identifies five specific conflict-handling styles:

  • Competing;
  • Collaborating;
  • Compromising;
  • Avoiding;
  • Accommodating.

The Thomas-Killman model is based on combinations of assertive/unassertive and cooperative/uncooperative behavior, where the former indicates a party’s intent to satisfy their own concerns, and the latter their intent to satisfy the concerns of others. None of the styles is inherently better than the others; instead, they can all be used depending on the specific situation at hand. On the other hand, the authors believe that everyone is naturally inclined towards one of the five styles, which is why it is important to understand the benefits of each style and try to adjust our approach to best address any specific situation. 

Let’s take a closer look at each of the five conflict management styles. 

Competing

Actively pursuing an outcome beneficial to your side of the argument. This style is best suited for the following situations:

  • In emergency situations where fast and decisive action is of utmost importance;
  • On relevant issues involving unpopular decisions (eg. discipline, cost-cutting, etc.);
  • On issues that are vital to the success of a company where you are absolutely certain that you are right;
  • In disputes with individuals who thrive from the non-competing behavior of others.

Collaborating

An approach that aims to create a win-win situation through a joint effort of the involved parties. It is recommendable for the following situation:

  • When both sides have concerns that are too important to be compromised and where an integrative solution is required;
  • When learning is the objective;
  • When we wish to merge diverging perspectives;
  • When we wish to gain mutual commitment by achieving consensus;
  • When we need to air out feelings that hinder a working relationship.

Compromising

Attempting to meet the other party halfway. This approach is best suited for situations when: 

  • The concerns and goals are not important enough to potentially threaten more pressing matters;
  • Opponents with equal power are committed to mutually exclusive goals;
  • A temporary settlement of complex issues is required;
  • An expedient solution is needed under time constraints;
  • Collaboration or competition are unsuccessful.

Avoiding

Ignoring the conflict and not engaging in any arguments. This approach is rarely recommendable, but can be utilized in the following situations:

  • When an issue is trivial and there are more pressing concerns;
  • When there doesn’t seem to be a chance to satisfy our concerns;
  • When the potential disruption outweighs the benefits;
  • When it is more important to gather information than reach a decision;
  • When a conflict can be resolved more successfully by others;
  • When the issue at hand is a manifestation of a greater underlying issue.

Accommodating

Ceding “victory” to the other party. This style is particularly effective in the following situations:

  • When we realize we are wrong;
  • When we wish to create a better position to be heard, to learn, and to show that we are reasonable;
  • When the issues are more important to others than to ourselves;
  • When we wish to gain social credit for future benefit;
  • When we must cut the losses;
  • When harmony is more important than achieving our objective;
  • When we wish to allow others to learn from mistakes.

To reiterate, no style is superior to any other and we should do our best to properly assess the nature and the context of the conflict before settling on a direction. 

Who should manage conflict?

Common wisdom would suggest that conflict management should be left to the managers (team leaders, coordinators, bosses, etc.), but that is never the best-case scenario. This type of problem-solving does not necessarily include a top-down approach, and managers should not intervene in every dispute. 

Ideally, disputing team members will be able to resolve the conflict themselves. The intervention of a third party only hinders collaboration and increases the team’s dependence on a manager. Instead, managers should work towards enabling employees to resolve conflicts independently by improving their communication and conflict management skills. Ultimately, for successful collaboration, team members need to be accountable and capable of resolving their own problems. 

If they are required to engage, managers should approach it from a position of mediation, and not authority. In other words, they should help the disputing parties resolve the conflict on their own, rather than imposing an authoritative decision. Of course, if mediation doesn’t produce satisfactory results, some form of executive decision will be required. 

Best practices

Regardless of the nature of the conflict, its context, and the preferred style of the involved parties, there is a number of universally applicable principles and steps that help manage the conflict in a healthy and constructive manner. It is a sort of a code of conduct for handling conflict from the moment it is acknowledged to its resolution. 

These are the best practices for the process of conflict resolution:

Acknowledge the situation: understand what is happening and communicate clearly and honestly

Let everyone be heard: allow everyone to express their opinions and feelings. Before the process of problem-solving can begin, we must first acknowledge what everyone thinks and how they feel. Make sure that you are truly and actively listening to other involved parties.

Avoid finger-pointing: do not further antagonize any of the involved parties by accusing and placing the blame on them. Instead, express your own perspective (“I feel that…”, “I believe that…”) and remember that the goal is to help the other party understand your point of view and try to find common ground.

Define the problem: conflicts can get heated quickly and the cause of the argument can easily be lost in the noise. Make sure that the cause of the dispute is accurately identified so that it could be properly addressed.

Identify the need: conflict management is not there to determine who wins the argument but to find a solution that works for everyone. This solution will be achieved quicker and more effectively if we recognize the underlying needs of the disputing parties and think of ways to accommodate them. 

Try to find common ground: finding areas of agreement – no matter how small – is crucial to a successful resolution. The least the involved parties can agree on is the definition of a problem, the ensuing procedure, and the fears and concerns they have regarding the problem. Agreeing to smaller changes to our side of the argument shows a willingness to reach a mutually satisfactory outcome.

Work on a solution: generate multiple proposals, determine mutually agreed actions, make sure that everyone is in agreement.

Conclusion

Workplace conflict is never pleasant, but it is not only unavoidable but also important – it identifies the underlying issues detrimental to the team and sets us towards resolving them. In fact, workplace conflict can be a catalyst for team improvement in a variety of areas. While we never want to see work partners clashing, it is crucial to address the conflict as soon as it is identified and approach it constructively with the interests of the team in mind. 

References:

  • Eunson B. (2007). Conflict management. Milton, Australia: John Wiley and Sons Australia, Ltd.
  • Kaliprasad M. (2018). Conflict management and stakeholder negotiations in the technical environment. Smashwords Edition.
  • Mitchell B. & Gamlem C. (2015). The essential workplace conflict handbook. Wayne, NJ: The Career Press, Inc.
  • Davey L. (2019). The Good Fight: Use Productive Conflict to Get Your Team and Organization Back on Track. Vancouver, Canada: Page Two Books
  • https://hbr.org/2017/07/how-to-handle-a-disagreement-on-your-team
  • https://courses.lumenlearning.com/wm-principlesofmanagement/chapter/reading-conflict-within-teams/
  • https://irc.queensu.ca/5-benefits-of-workplace-conflict/
  • https://hr.berkeley.edu/hr-network/central-guide-managing-hr/managing-hr/interaction/conflict/resolving
  • History and Validity of the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument

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