Conflict Management

A survey by the American Management Association found that managers spend at least 24 % of their time in conflict resolution.

However, conflicts are healthy. You need your team members disagreeing on ideas, values and courses of action. Indeed, the more they are in conflicts the better they become at change, growth and innovation.

Harriet B. Braiker, psychologist and management consultant:

“Conflict can and should be handled constructively; when it is, relationships benefit. Conflict avoidance is *not* the hallmark of a good relationship. On the contrary, it is a symptom of serious problems and of poor communication.”

Benefits of Conflict:

  • Improves team culture – Conflicts encourage debate and discussion at the workplace. Also, they are opportunities for developing understanding between parties, which boosts productivity.
  • Makes goals clearer – Conflicts help a team identify the most important goals for a particular project. Indeed, they get to get to give every perspective a chance.
  • Fosters commitment – Employees who have the opportunity to express their opinions, feel valued hence fosters commitment to a project.
  • Clarifies doubts – The possibility of conflict doubles in a dynamic work environment. Meanwhile, they allow the team to raise queries giving management an opportunity to clarify all doubts.
  • Relieves stress and anxiety – Letting people give their point of views allows emotions to flow. As a result,  those in a conflict relax once it resolves. This releases the tension, stress, and anxiety associated with lack of understanding.
  • Speeds up change – Maintaining status quo is the path of least resistance. However, this leads to stunted growth. Conflict, on the other hand, offers managers a chance to face problems head on thereby speeding up change. Also, conflict challenges old work practices.
  • Improves conflict management skills – Emotional intelligence, patience and self-control are traits necessary for effective business communication. Meanwhile, participating in conflict whenever it arises gives you an opportunity to polish your conflict resolution skills.
  • Makes one accommodating – Conflicts are a platform to express who we are. Through them, parties understand each to make necessary adjustments. This improves our capacity to tell our perspective while remaining engaged to those who hold divergent opinions.
  • Magnifies personality traits – Unable to subject every person we work with to psychometric tests like the Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument (HBDI), conflicts come in handy. They enable us to gain crucial insights into how other people think, operate and their personalities. Identifying patterns of behaviour provides us with a level of predictability essential in preparing for any disagreement.

Conflict is good, why need conflict resolution mechanism?

You need a conflict resolution mechanism to manage the tension, emotion and polarisation that come with conflicts. Without conflict resolution in the workplace, you risk the polarisation to turn into a destructive force.

To comprehend the methods of conflict resolution, we need first to understand the nature of the conflict.

Dynamic Conflict Model

The dynamic conflict model describes how people’s response affects conflict resolution both negatively and positively.

Craig Runde and Tim Flanagan developed the Dynamic Conflict Model and published it in their 2007 book, Becoming a Competent Conflict Leader. In it,  they broke down conflicts into two main categories; Cognitive Conflicts and Affective Conflicts.

Cognitive conflicts focus on problem-solving hence the parties are tasked-focused. Furthermore,  due to their nature, cognitive conflicts hardly escalate into dysfunctional conflicts.

Affective conflicts are focussed on the person hence emotionally charged. In that case, conflict escalation is likely and often leads to reduced collaboration and severed relationships.

Constructive responses keep those managing conflict focused on issues thereby reducing tension and stopping the escalation. On the other hand, destructive responses centred on personalities only make things worse. Responses to a conflict can either be active or passive.  Active responses are those which a person takes explicit action in response to provocation. On the other hand, passive responses are those which an individual refrains from acting.

Hot Buttons

Hot buttons are the incidents that trigger conflicts. They result in frustration, disappointment, and pain, which can either, be real, anticipated or imagined. The end of a successful project, poor performance review or a missed promotion can be a hot button.

Since hot buttons are emotionally charged, they make us lose control and push us to react without thinking of the consequences.  Understanding what triggers your hot buttons is the first step towards avoiding conflict escalation.

The Retaliatory Cycle

The refractory period is when emotions have taken complete control. You need to manage these triggers to avoid getting into a retaliatory cycle. Take control of your emotions to shorten the refractory period.  One way of controlling these emotions is using Mixed Martial Arts breathing techniques.

Conflict Intensity Levels

Conflicts in a business environment vary widely in intensity.

Level One: Differences

On this level, parties only hold different perspectives but are cognisant of the other party’s interests and mindset. Differences rarely affect productivity or working relationships.

Level Two: Misunderstandings

This occurs when opposing parties interpret situations differently. There is a need to check for misunderstandings early in the conflict resolution process to avoid escalation.

Level Three: Disagreements

Disagreements occur when two or more parties see a situation differently even though they clearly understand the other’s interests and position. The discomfort is that the other party is not in agreement. Often, the parties instigate innovativeness.

Level Four: Discord

Conflicts reach the level of discord when parties start to avoid, criticize and block each other. The relationship between the parties is negatively affected on this level.

 Level Five: Polarisation

The parties start to use destructive behaviours when conflict rises to this critical level. Other parties may begin to recruit others to join their cause, which leads to severely damaged relationships.

A critical step to conflict resolution in the workplace is to realise that you cannot dictate in conflict. You cannot:

  • Insist that your client should take a particular step.
  • Force your colleagues to act against their will.
  • Force your boss to agree with your point of view.
  • Arm-Twist your suppliers if you want to maintain a healthy relationship.

Conflict Management Strategies

The following are six conflict resolution skills to use. In addition to this list, get our 8 Methods of Resolving Conflict download.

1)    Push/ Pull Influencing

Influence is the ability to bring people to your line of thinking, beliefs or attitude without using coercion or force. It is an important interpersonal skill for. Managers need to influence their employees to work hard towards meeting the company’s objectives. Salespersons also need to convince clients to choose their products over their competitor’s.

It is essential for a manager to choose the right influencing style for each situation.

Clint Eastwood:

“It takes tremendous discipline to control the influence, the power you have over other people’s lives.”

There are two main influencing styles; push and pull.

The Push Styles

The Push style forces the other party to change as opposed to encouraging them to make the change. It involves threatening punishment, logical reasoning or offering incentives. Even though push may achieve quick results and compliance, it does not foster commitment.

The influencer asserts their views and expects everyone else to follow making it an ‘I’ driven style. It is appropriate when dealing with inexperienced or new staff, and speedy action is required or where individuals involved are in danger. You can also use push if you are an expert in that particular area.

Push styles include:

Force. This is applicable in conflict situations where there is no option. For instance, there is a threat of punishment, damage or costs. ‘Do X or the consequences will be…’ Force is handy to those in positions of authority or experts. Meanwhile, the demerit of using force is that people become unimaginative, dependent and sometimes fight back covertly.

Rules and Standards. Applicable where there is a risk to the organisation/clients if things don’t happen in a specific manner. You use this style to enforce a regulatory framework like contracts, procedures, and agreements.  ‘It is a rule that you must do X.’The downside to rules and standards is blind rule following without any thoughts of challenging change or consequences.

Exchange. You can use exchange where there is an opportunity to bargain or negotiate. ‘Do X, and I will give you Y.’ You can use promotion, money or favour to get the other party to agree to your terms.  Exchange is effective in the short term, however, rewards become less desirable with time and also leads to an increase in the cost.

Persuasion. The influencer makes logical, objective and rational suggestions to get the other party to buy into their ideas. You can use this as one of the conflict resolution strategies on someone in a specialist or advisory position. ‘It is logical for you to do X.’ Persuasion requires building trust, credibility and high emotional intelligence. It may turn you into the scapegoat in the event something doesn’t work.

Assertion.  This is declaring personal wishes while considering the other person’s viewpoint. ‘I would like you to do X.’ It works best when there is an obvious hierarchy, a good relationship or course of action is clear to both parties.

Pull Styles

Pull styles motivate the other party to change by highlighting the gains from the change.  They also encompass making personal disclosure to lessen rational resistance.  Pull conflict management styles are more effective than push, however, they take longer to achieve.

Since pull is a collaborative process, all parties are allowed to offer ideas and views on how to resolve the conflict.

Pull styles include:

Personal Magnetism. This involves the use of enthusiasm, trust, personality or charm. However, it is open or fluid conflict conditions where opposing parties can choose to follow you or not. The downside to Pull style is that individuals can feel lost when the influencer is unavailable.

Visioning.  You tap into the parties’ emotions, capture their imagination and help them envisage how things could be. To be effective with this technique, identify the common ground and use it to paint a positive picture of the outcome.  It is effective to inspire others to join your cause while drawing closer+ the parties in conflict.

Bridging. This involves finding common ground, listening, engaging and supporting those who hold opposing ideologies. This technique is useful in consulting situations, where exploration is critical. Use bridging in conjunction with other conflict management styles like persuasion.

Environmental. This involves changing the environment, which can be either physical or psychological to influence the outcome. In particular, it can be in the form of facilitating, involving or target setting. It can be applied where time and resources are readily available. Environmental pull technique should be used together with other influencing styles for it to be effective in conflict resolution.

Joint Problem Solving. This involves having disagreeing parties to work together in defining the problem, setting goals and coming up with the solution. Joint problem solving is a highly effective conflict management skill. However, it requires a high level of trust and motivation to change by both parties.

2) Interest-Based Relational Approach

Interest-Based Relational (IBR) Approach is a conflict resolution method that accommodates individual differences while avoiding being fixated on their positions. To apply this approach, you have to follow these rules.

  • Pay attention to the interests that are being presented
  • Keep people and problems separate.
  • Make sure good relationships are the priority
  • Listen First, talk second.
  • Set out the facts.
  • Explore options together.

The conflict resolution process using IBR can be broken down into five main steps.

#Step 1: Set the Scene

The first step is to agree on the rules of the IBR Approach. In addition, the parties involved should understand that the conflict is a shared problem. Therefore, they should resolve it through negotiation and discussion instead of aggression.

Make it clear that you are presenting an opinion of the problem without being aggressive or submissive. Apply effective business communication skills to understand others perceptions and position. Remember to restate, paraphrase and summarise. Of course, conflict resolution is a process with difficulty in conversation. You can refer to our guide on How to Have Difficult Conversations for more helpful tips.

#Step 2: Gather Information

Ask for the other person’s views to better understand their needs, underlying interests and concerns. Even more, assert that you respect their opinion and need their support to resolve the conflict. In addition, focus on the issues instead of personalities. Most importantly, try to see the conflict from their point of view, clarify feelings while remaining flexible.

#Step 3: Agree on The Problem

To reach a mutually acceptable solution, all parties in conflict have to agree on the problems they are trying to solve. In fact, failure to identify underlying goals, interests and needs will render opposing side unable to identify different yet interlinked problems.

#Step 4: Brainstorm Possible Solutions

Equitably involving everyone in brainstorming solutions makes them content with the resolution.

#Step 5: Negotiate a Solution

The guiding principles to negotiating a solution are: Be Calm, Be patient and Be Respectful. Having uncovered the real differences and the position of the other party, a jointly acceptable solution may be reached.

3) Organisational Justice

Justice is a primary concern for many employees. A sense of justice and fairness emboldens a positive attitude while facilitating effective conflict resolution in the workplace.

Afzalor Rahim, Magner N.R and Shapro D.L breaks down justice into three categories in their 2000 book, Do Justice Perceptions Influence Styles of Handling Conflict with Supervisors? Distributive justice concentrations on the level employees believe that outcomes from a particular decision are fair.

Procedural justice places emphasis on the fairness of the procedure a decision is based on and fairness in the result. When managers use fair procedurals, employees valued and respected.  Interactional justice put emphasis on how information about decisions is disseminated to employees and how they are treated by supervisors.

When workers view their supervisors as interactional fair, they are less concerned about distributional justice hence open to different conflict resolution strategies.

4) Negotiation

Negotiation involves back-and-forth communication between parties in conflict with the aim of coming up with a solution. Indeed, it enables negotiators to identify the relationship between the situation and the outcome. It is often the first choice for conflict resolution.  Negotiation enhances creativity as parties search for common ground. A negotiated agreement can become a contract hence enforceable by law.

5) Mediation

Mediation is a voluntary process whereby a neutral person facilitates communication between the parties. In particular, the mediator reconciles parties so that they reach an agreement. The mediator does not force an agreement; parties are responsible for negotiating their settlement.

Mediation seeks to make conflicting parties understand other’s point of view. The mediator can also meet the parties separately.

Mediation resolves conflicts that involve management and employees, landlord and tenants, or complex business disputes.

6) Arbitration

Arbitration is the submission of a disputed matter to an impartial person for decision. The arbitrator listens to both sides then makes a decision as they have full control of the process.   If all parties previously agreed to be bound by the decision, the result is binding with limited appeal rights. There can either be one arbitrator or a panel of three.  Arbitration is commonly used in labour disputes.

Conflicts at the workplace are unavoidable. If you manage them well, they are healthy. Diverse ideas, disagreements, and disputes about a company strategy instigate change, stimulate creativity and foster stronger teams. You need however to know how to manage tension, emotion and polarisation that comes with them.

8 Ways of Achieving Conflict Resolution

A 1 minute video on a playlist of several 1 minute videos regarding conflict management.

About Daniel Nyairo

Daniel is a writer with the passion for engaging, delighting and inspiring with the right word at the right place in a sentence. He has been writing for the last four years about business management, content marketing, and technology.

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