That Escalated Quickly: Resolving Workplace Conflict In 8 Steps

by Mark Ellwood

That Escalated Quickly: Resolving Workplace Conflict

As we spend so much of our lives in the workplace, there will inevitably come a time when one or more people start to rub each other up the wrong way. Unfortunately, due to the lack of understanding or skills to deal with the situation, all too often these acute flare-ups are ignored, meaning they fester and deepen, leading to a more chronic, longer-term problem that can degrade the workplace culture and lead to staff turnover.  So here we take a look at how to handle conflict and nip the problem in the bud.


Types of conflict


There are essentially two different types of conflict. Those that arise from procedural issues or conflicts in the work flow – what I’ll refer to as ‘mechanical conflict’, and those that arise from personality clashes – or what I’ll refer to here as ‘social conflict’. Mechanical conflict can arise for numerous reasons, such as a mis-communication from managers or within teams, or a non-alignment of internal procedures and policies. In nearly all cases though, it can be boiled down to issues with internal communication. With social conflict, it is often about a person’s way of doing things and/or their behaviours.  Maybe someone in a team is annoyed about a colleague who eats crisps loudly at 10am every morning.


Dealing with conflict – The 8-Point Plan


The interesting thing is, while the above ‘types’ of conflict seem to be quite different scenarios, they can be dealt with in very much the same way - under the 8-point plan outlined below:


1. Tackle it head-on


The worst thing you can do is to avoid the issue – as in many cases it will lead to systemic rot further down the line – at which point the issues are much harder to deal with.  As we’ve said, conflict is inevitable, so hunting it down and dealing with it at the first sign is the best course of action. Moreover, learning how to effectively deal with conflict (both between yourself and others, and between those you manage) will set you on the path to senior management, as trying to get there without this ability will either be impossible, or it can lead to greater problems on your watch. So, when you’ve identified a problem, or it has been brought to your attention, go for it! Take the initiative. Indeed, actively seeking out potential areas of conflict will, in the long term, help to reduce its incidence.


2. Get the discussion going


Get the parties involved together. That could be you approaching someone else you have a conflict with (or if you know they feel they have a conflict with you), or bringing the warring factions together in the same place to talk it through. Pick a good time and place though. This means setting a room aside and taking it seriously. It doesn’t mean a quick chat at the desk of the person. Maybe ask the other party when would be a convenient time to meet.


3. It’s not personal


This could be about a conflict over a way of doing things because the instructions were not totally clear, or there’s been some misinterpretation. Or it could be about someone hanging their smelly cycling gear up in the office every day.  But it’s not personal - make it not personal. Focus on the problem, not the person. In either case, there’s a functional reason for the distress. You can’t change the people themselves, so focus on the mechanics of the problem and how to get the work flowing smoothly again. Take the emotion out of the equation and stick to the facts.


4. Analyse the issues, identify the conflict


Listen carefully to all parties and identify where there is agreement and disagreement. Agree on what’s not working.  Often there’s a good reason a person does something in a particular way, and they may not even be aware of its impact on others. Raising the concern can clarify the reasons. Make inquiries, and leave out the accusations. “When this happens…” rather than “When you do this…”. Give specific examples. During this phase, it is important that everyone listens to the perspectives of the others and puts themselves in their shoes.


5. Find the common ground, identify objectives


Find the areas where you can agree, and uncover everyone’s objectives. This can be the foundation. Then agree on the areas where there are conflicts and develop a plan to deal with those. This way the parties work together for a common goal and it is often the case that both parties need to make changes and compromise. It could even be that you agree you’re both not equipped to deal with the issue and need to bring in a third party (such as Human Resources). That’s fine, so long as both parties are committed to tackling the issue in a way that benefits everyone else and allows everyone to achieve their stated objectives. If, during discussion, you realise your own wrongdoing, make sure to apologise. This isn’t taking the blame. But it is taking ownership of your contribution to creating the problem. Likewise, be quick to forgive the other party for what you see as their transgressions.


6. Create a plan of action


Now you know the areas of agreement and disagreement, you can create a plan of action to deal with them. For example, if someone is always taking control in meetings, the plan can involve making sure everyone has time to speak and to finish what they’re saying. If it’s about two interpretations of the same instructions – an idea might be for the parties to start working together to standardise their output, see what’s working the best on each side, and combine it into a standard practice. There would also be a need to involve the person who gave the instructions so they can understand why there were different interpretations and be less ambiguous the next time.


7. Follow through on the plan


Make sure that you follow through on the agreed plan of action, and check in on each other to keep track of progress. It is a good idea to stay accountable to each other and maybe involve a third party to assist. For example, if workloads have not been distributed fairly, make sure the distribution of tasks happens at the beginning of a project and ask a third party to assess the fairness. Also make sure you praise each other when you make progress and achieve goals. This reminds you that you’re all on the same team and reinforces best practice and constructive behaviours.


8. Lesson learned


Agree on what went wrong and what needs to be corrected. Was it a problem in communications? Do new policies and guidelines need to be created? Maybe existing policies need to be changed, or job descriptions and acceptable behaviours better defined. Was your plan to overcome the issues a success? Can this be used as a best practice case study for the rest of the business?


When we look at conflict in this way, we can see that conflict actually leads to innovation, and behind every seemingly problematic disagreement, there is a golden opportunity for evolution.