Conflict Between Two Employees – How to Pick Up the Pieces

Don’t Let the Show End if People Fall Out

Conflict between two employees is bound to happen from time to time. People can fall out, even in the most prestigious environment, over their differences. And with good staff hard to keep, leaders and managers must be flexible about finding the best solution.

This article explores how to replace conflict with calm and restore the spirit of collaboration that businesses need. We consider various ways managers can handle conflicts between employees, starting with the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Model.

This helps the people concerned work on resolving the conflict themselves. And we end by looking at conflicts between employees and line managers, because they are also employees. The proactive approach is, don’t worry about what might happen if conflicts arise. Successful resolutions can produce long term benefits and make your business stronger.

It’s About Talking and Seeing Where it Leads

How Can Two Employees Resolve a Conflict Themselves?

The Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Model uses two core dimensions to help the individuals concerned find the best solution to the conflict. These are assertiveness and cooperativeness. Thomas-Kilmann proposes adopting the following ‘modes’:

1. Accommodating

You are accepting and cooperative, putting aside your own priorities and focusing on the other person. Small disagreements, you can handle with minimal effort. The other person knows they can speak their mind without fear. Accommodating is best when:

  • You’re in the wrong.
  • Your peer cares more about the conflict than you do.
  • It’s important to keep the peace.
  • There’s no other solution.
2. Avoiding

You are unaccepting and uncooperative. Right now, you don’t want to address your problems or those of others. An avoiding response makes sense when:

  • There isn’t time to resolve the conflict properly at the moment.
  • You aren’t sure yet how you feel about the issue.
  • The conflict makes others around you uncomfortable.
  • There’s high tension.
3. Collaboration

Team of business people high-fiving on a table

The opposite of avoiding, is a combination of being assertive and cooperative, and finding a win-win situation, satisfying everyone. Consider a collaborative approach when:

  • Your working relationship is important.
  • The eventual chosen solution will have a significant impact.
  • Everyone’s interests, needs and beliefs need to be considered.
  • The issue impacts many team members.
4. Competing

A competing or assertive response isn’t either accepting or co-operating. But it may be unavoidable, to get your desired outcome. Consider it when:

  • You need to stand up for yourself.
  • A less forceful style has proved ineffective.
  • There’s been no change in the other person.
5. Compromising

This mode scores average on accepting and cooperating. Consider this when:

  • Reaching a solution matters more than what the solution actually is.
  • A temporary solution is necessary.
  • The conflict is at a standstill.
  • You want to move towards collaboration.
  • No other solution will make you both happy. 

How Do You Resolve a Conflict Between Two Employees?

If you’re a leader or manager intervening in a conflict, try following these guidelines:

Business teamwork blaming partner and serious discussion.

#1: Identify the Underlying Issue

With a straightforward disagreement, ask the employees to work it out between them, referring to Thomas-Kilmann. Or, set up a conflict resolution meeting. This is more formal. We’ll consider how it works in a moment.

Either way, you need to talk to both parties. Ask open-ended questions to establish what’s been happening and arrive at an acceptable solution. If there’s been serious misconduct, such as sexual harassment, racism, homophobia or transphobia, talk to HR or get external advice.

#2: Provide Training Going Forward

After resolving this situation, train your colleagues in conflict resolution, equipping them for future conflicts. Focus training on effective communication and problem solving, using role playing and scenarios.

#3: Maintain Open Communication

 Provide ways for employees to report problems, if they can’t solve them themselves. Keep your door open and encourage people to come to you with concerns. And afterwards, check how they’re doing.

#4: Improve Teamwork

With the different personalities involved, workplace conflicts are bound to happen. But you can take steps to lessen the chances of them becoming problematic. To help reduce conflict and encourage collaboration, be clear about your rules and expectations. An important part is to define roles clearly and have team building sessions.

#5: Know When to Intervene

Timing is important in resolving conflicts. If possible, step in before the problem escalates and impacts the business. Two employees not talking to each other can affect the rest of the team’s productivity.

Let’s Sit Down and Talk About This

Two businessmen talk during a business meeting

What Do You Do in a Conflict Resolution Meeting?

  • Meet the employees concerned: Start by explaining that the goal is to sort out the dispute. Set ground rules, particularly letting each side tell their story without interruptions. Encourage them to see the situation from each other’s perspective and make resolving it top priority. Whatever your history with the individuals, remain impartial. Treat all parties with equal respect.
  • Ask them to describe the problem: While establishing the details, ask the employees to focus on the present problem, with no personal attacks. Get them to identify their underlying concerns, feelings and needs. Once everything’s on the table, restate the issues objectively as you see them, highlighting the areas of agreement.
  • Get them to suggest possible solutions: After the situation’s been made clear, encourage the employees to collaborate on finding an answer. Hopefully this will lead to greater commitment on both sides. If collaboration doesn’t look likely, seek a compromise. If they still disagree, propose a possible solution, based on your knowledge of the situation.
  • Make a plan: Once you’ve identified a solution, outline the action required from each side. Provide guidance and ask questions to check the plan is effective and feasible. Put your plan in writing.
  • Follow up: After the meeting, check up to monitor progress and see if your plan has settled the dispute successfully. If it hasn’t, or it’s created other difficulties, look for other solutions.
  • End result: You need to take suitable, timely steps to prevent and settle employee conflicts. Sometimes you may need to involve a third party as advisor. The consistent goal is to ensure the conflict has a productive outcome, and minimise the impact on your business.

How Big a Problem is Workplace Confrontation?

A 2008 American study found employees spent about 2 hours a week dealing with conflict. 25% of people interviewed said workplace conflicts led to sickness and absenteeism. 9% blamed conflicts for projects failing. 33% said they led to people leaving, either quitting or being fired. The other costs of conflicts are customers noticing and taking their business elsewhere. You can replace trained employees at a price, but lost customers and sales can’t be replaced.

What Kinds of Conflicts Can Arise Between Two Individuals?

Interpersonal conflicts fall into isolated incidents and ongoing issues. But conflict isn’t always serious. And the outcome needn’t be negative. Recognising and working through conflict in productive, healthy ways will help create better working relationships.

Workplace Conflict by Numbers

Numbers 2-6 laid out in fridge magnets

As we said earlier, appropriately, there are numerous theories about conflict management – and they don’t all agree! Here are some different ideas to help understand conflicts and resolve them.

4 Types of Work Conflict

  • Status: When people disagree about who’s in charge.
  • Task: Colleagues disagree about what needs to be done, or don’t agree on the project’s goal.
  • Process: A process conflict is similar to a task conflict, but the disagreement is about how it’s done.
  • Relationship: This is when personal feelings get involved. It can mean colleagues snapping at each other or raising their voices. They may also feel they’re being disrespected, and get upset about that.

5 Stages of Conflict

The stages of conflict in organisations follow a recognised sequence. This typically describes a group conflict, like a labour dispute, but the same sequence applies to conflict between two employees.

The 5 major stages of conflict are:

  • Latent: Factors exist which could become potential conflict-inducing forces.
  • Perceived: Conflicts may arise due to misunderstandings, even if no actual conditions of latent conflict exist. This can happen when one party perceives the other as likely to thwart or frustrate their goals. Improved communication will help resolve the conflict.
  • Felt: The situation is not only perceived, but felt and recognised. Individuals feel anxious about the situation and need to vent their feelings.
  • Manifest: The two parties engage in behaviours they know will evoke responses from each other.
  • Aftermath: The conflict is resolved, but the resolution may have positive or negative repercussions. Genuinely resolving it to everyone’s satisfaction will lay the basis for a more co-operative relationship.

5 Common Types of Workplace Conflict

  1. Leadership styles: Every leader has their own way of leading. Different leadership styles  may cause irritation and confusion. It’s important to bear in mind, whatever your style, that the goal of business is synergy and creative cooperation.
  2. Interdependency issues: When an employee relies on someone else to get their job done, this can cause dissension. If someone’s repeatedly late, everyone else is in trouble. This type of conflict can be resolved by clarifying people’s roles and responsibilities.
  3. Work style differences: Some people are team-oriented. Others are independent and task oriented, preferring to work without external output. Be aware how they affect each other.
  4. Cultural-based dissension: Differences due to age, race or ethnicity, religion or gender can impact work relationships. Employees from different backgrounds will sometimes experience conflict. Promoting diversity and inclusivity will help you handle and pre-empt these disputes.
  5. Personality clashes:  These can be fuelled by perceptions about people’s actions, character or motives.  If someone insults someone, they will see it as inappropriate and disrespectful.  And if a casual remark is misunderstood, that may cause resentment.

What are the 6 Kinds of Conflict?

Gold number six on wooden surface

Interpersonal conflicts come under various categories:

1. Pseudo Conflict

This happens typically in one of these situations:

  • Misunderstandings lead to differences of opinion
  • People believe they have different goals when in fact they’re similar
  • One person is mocking or taunting the other

Most of the time you can resolve pseudo conflicts without too much trouble. It generally requires clarification about what you actually meant, or how your goals are aligned. Another important point, most people don’t enjoy being teased, especially in front of other people.

So you may need to talk through conflicts about badgering or teasing behaviour. If it looks like racist, homophobic, transphobic, or any other form of bullying, you should take more serious action.

2. Fact Conflict

This happens when two people disagree on particular information, or the truth of something. Because this kind of conflict involves facts, you can check them pretty easily. You simply need to find a credible source for the truth.

3. Value Conflict

This kind of conflict comes up when different personal values lead to disagreement. Such conflicts don’t always have a clear path to a resolution. People can have widely varying personal attitudes and beliefs. You may find it most helpful to agree to respectfully acknowledge your opposing viewpoints. And accept that you likely won’t change each other’s minds.

4. Policy Conflict

This happens when people can’t agree on a problem-solving strategy or action plan in a given situation. As we said at the start, people bring their different personalities, backgrounds, working habits, values and ideas to work. And while this diversity brings unique perspectives, sometimes it can lead to conflict.

5. Ego Conflict

These often develop alongside other types of conflict, making them harder to navigate. They commonly happen when the conflicts get personal. Look out for people using a disagreement as a platform to make judgemental or derogatory remarks. Don’t let them get personal.

6. Meta Conflict

This happens when people have a conflict about their conflict, if that makes sense! Here are some typical comments:

  • You nod, but you never actually hear what I’m saying.
  • That’s so unfair. That’s not what we were talking about at all!
  • You’re too worked up. I can’t deal with you like this.

To resolve conflict effectively, you need to communicate clearly. While a Meta conflict might highlight issues with communication, it often does so in unhelpful ways.  Not addressing communication problems productively, especially when you’re already at odds, can make the conflict worse.

AND FINALLY: Flexibility is the Key

Keep in mind in all this that the object is to restore calm and get back to business. Here’s a quick checklist:

Woman being flexible at yoga

Top Tips for Conflict Resolution in the Workplace

  • Start by agreeing what the problem is.
  • Don’t pretend it isn’t happening.
  • Create an appropriate space to talk out the differences. Create ground rules, including using “I,” not “you,” statements. If the issue affects the whole team, address it as a team, don’t single out one person.
  • Say sorry if it’s your fault, and forgive your co-workers if it’s their fault, to ensure a productive work environment moving forward.
  • Agree the next steps. End it with a handshake, social distancing restrictions allowing!

We’ve been talking about conflict between two employees. But line managers are also employees. Here are 5 strategies to help managers resolve their personal conflicts with employees:

  • Detach from your biases. Develop a strong sense of self-awareness. Know your trigger points!
  • Actively listen: Practise your listening skills
  • Practise empathy: Remember, only 40% of managers demonstrate empathy effectively!
  • Focus on the behaviour, not the person responsible.
  • Know when to call in HR for help.

You’re bound to have differences in the course of your work, which can give rise to conflict.  But by understanding and appreciating each other’s differences, you can turn these conflicts into co-operation. Keep talking!

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