In any professional setting, conflicts are bound to arise. Whether it's a disagreement over a project, a clash of personalities, or simple differences in opinions, conflicts can create a tense and toxic work environment. However, conflict resolution is a critical skill that can strengthen collaboration, improve teamwork, and enhance overall productivity – to such an extent that it has now started to be viewed as one of the top soft skills to have.
In today’s blog, we take a look at the top five strategies for conflict resolution.
To err is human, to forgive divine.
As Alexander Pope’s famous quote suggests, where there are people, there is conflict. We each have our own unique values, needs and habits, so it's easy to misunderstand or irritate one another.
However, when these disagreements are left unchecked, conflict can set in, leading to poor decision making, vindictive behaviours, a breakdown of teamwork and morale and projects stalling. Companies feel the pain with missed deadlines, absenteeism, and staff turnover – often losing valuable talent.
The good news is that a well-structured approach to conflict resolution can bring issues to light before they cause major problems, strengthen relationships, and even foster innovation. In the UK, the Association for Project Management (APM) states that “resolving conflict in projects is an essential part of our roles as project professionals”, but also that “positive conflicts lead to new ideas and thinking which can benefit the team as well as the project”.
So, what’s the best way to manage conflict?
1. Open communication:
Key to resolving conflict at work is fostering open and honest communication. Find a convenient time when everyone can meet to tackle the conflict. Team members should feel they can express their thoughts and concerns freely, in a safe and non-judgmental space. If everyone feels comfortable sharing their perspectives, then there’s less chance these will suddenly clash later in the project. Active listening is vital during these discussions, as it’s essential to understand each party's viewpoints without interruption or judgment. By actively listening, team members demonstrate respect and show that they value each other’s input. A good tactic here, once the person has finished speaking, is to rephrase what was said to make sure you and everyone understands it.
In discussions, it’s important to focus on behaviour and events, rather than personalities - for example, “When this happens …” instead of “When you do …”. Also important is looking at specific events rather than making generalised statements
2. Empathy and Understanding:
Conflict resolution requires empathy and understanding. Team members should be encouraged to put themselves in each other's shoes, to consider the perspectives, motivations, and experiences of their colleagues. This empathetic approach helps build trust and bridges gaps between individuals’ understanding of each other. By creating this environment where emotions are acknowledged and addressed respectfully, you can foster a sense of psychological safety and emotional well-being.
3. Identify conflict and establish common ground:
During a conflict, it's crucial to identify common ground between the conflicting parties. To do this, look for shared goals, interests, or values that can become a foundation for resolution. By focusing on these commonalities, you can redirect the conversation away from differences and start using collaboration to find a solution. This is where the parties need to be reminded of the bigger picture and the collective objectives of the team or organisation as a whole. This shift in perspective can help individuals recognise that their interests are actually aligned, even if their methods or opinions differ in particular areas. Key tactics here are to summarise the areas of agreement and disagreement – and ask the other person/party if they agree with your assessment. Modify the assessment until all parties agree on the areas of conflict and commonality. Areas of conflict can then be prioritised, from urgent to less important.
4. Collaborate on solutions:
Work together to find a mutually beneficial solution. Brainstorming sessions can be an effective tool in generating creative ideas and fostering a sense of ownership of the solution among team members. The idea is to reach a consensus where both parties feel their concerns are addressed. A classic ‘win-win outcome’ is not always possible, but it's essential to find a compromise that satisfies everyone involved as much as possible. Getting a neutral mediator involved, such as an HR representative, can facilitate the process and ensure fairness. Tackle the most important conflict first, keep an eye on the desire future outcome and keep track with future meetings to keep an eye on how it’s going.
5. Constructive feedback
Regular feedback is crucial for conflict prevention and resolution. Implement a culture of constructive feedback where individuals can openly provide input to one another. Once again, feedback should be specific, focused on behavior rather than personal attacks, and offered with the intention of improvement. Look for opportunities to point out progress and encourage the team to compliment others’ insights and achievements.
Encourage team members to address conflicts or issues as they arise, rather than letting them fester. Timely intervention can prevent conflicts from escalating and becoming more difficult to resolve.
Resolving conflicts at work is an essential skill that contributes to a healthy and productive work environment. By fostering open communication, seeking common ground, promoting collaboration, embracing empathy, and implementing constructive feedback mechanisms, conflicts can be addressed effectively and transformed into opportunities for growth, improved teamwork and even innovation.
You may also see a few recurring themes here from previous blogs – such as collaboration. This is because these essential soft skills come together in all areas of work life to make the workplace more harmonious and productive.
Conflict resolution is not about eliminating differences, but rather finding common ground and creating an atmosphere of respect and understanding. After all, diversity of outlook and opinion helps to drive progress in the workplace. With these strategies, you can create a harmonious workplace that maximises the potential of its employees.
Finally, while the advice above is written with team managers in mind, the exact same approaches can be applied at the individual level when conflict arises between you and a colleague.