How to manage conflicts in the workplace?

Mindletic

5 min read

A dispute between you and another individual, your family members, or fellow employees may happen at any time. At home or work, disagreements can be unpleasant, and not everyone calls for the same response. For example, to finish a task successfully, its members should reach a consensus about the division of the work. The division of labor may bring a conflict between group and private interests. It may happen due to individual differences between co-workers or task-related disputes arising from leadership or company policies. Destructive workplace conflicts and behaviors reduce company performance and negatively affect employee well-being. Communication plays a crucial role in this process of tuning conflicting interests.

What is conflict?

Conflict can be described as opposite goals, interests, positions, opinions or a clash of views. Types of conflicts include (1) internal and (2) social conflicts: interpersonal, intergroup and international. Although there are many reasons people disagree, many conflicts revolve around personal values, perceptions, conflicting goals, power dynamics and communication styles. Social conflict's reasons could also include social dilemmas: conflict between self-interests and public interests; competition between the different interests of several individuals; perceived injustice when the situation is perceived as wrong and misperception when another person's motives or goals are misconceived.

Conflict management - how to resolve conflict?

Conflict management is a term for the way we identify and handle conflicts efficiently. The goal is to minimize the potential negative impacts that can arise from disagreements and increase the odds of a positive outcome.

Five conflict management styles

It's human to deal with conflict by defaulting to what's comfortable. According to University of Pittsburgh professors Ken Thomas and Ralph Kilmann, most people approach conflict in one of two ways - assertiveness or cooperativeness. From these approaches, five modes or styles of conflict management arise (Thomas–Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument):

1. Competing.

This style is high in assertiveness and low in cooperation.

Competing allows you to stand up for your ideas and interests, make a quick recommendation and possibly press for a fast decision if you have enough power to be victorious. Sometimes it can act as self-defense, allowing you to protect your interests and standpoints from offensive criticism. This conflict management style can also have costs, such as strained work relationships (the person who lost the conflict may feel resentful or exploited). Rapid resolution can also lead to possible win-win solutions overlooked because the information is not exchanged freely in the competing mode. When decisions are imposed, other individuals are less committed to them and show less initiative and motivation. But while you might think this style would never be acceptable, it is sometimes needed when you are in a higher position of power than other parties and need to resolve a dispute quickly.

Applicable when:

  • the outcome of the decision is crucial,

  • you are the authority, and you see an issue more clearly than others,

  • the decision needs to be made quickly,

  • you have no choice or nothing to lose.

2. Accommodating.

This style tends to be high in cooperation but low in assertiveness.

The accommodation allows you to assist others in meeting their needs by supporting them, and it can also restore harmony. While building relationships, it can be a way to apologize when necessary. But you need to be aware of this style's costs too, such as sacrificed concerns or that it can lead to your agreement to things for which you have little excitement and satisfaction. In other contexts, a pattern of accommodating can even encourage others to exploit you. This management style might benefit your work when conflicts are trivial and you need to move on quickly. At home, this style works when your relationship with your roommate, partner, or child is more important than being right. Although accommodation might be optimal for some conflicts, others require a more assertive style.

Applicable when:

  • solving the problem is essential for the other party,

  • you want to defuse the situation for a while but later might return to it,

  • the outcome of the issue is not that important for you,

  • the goal is to maintain a peaceful relationship with others, and you are okay with the result.

3. Avoiding.

When avoiding, you try to dodge or bypass a conflict. This style of managing conflicts is low in assertiveness and cooperativeness.

Avoidance is unproductive for handling most disputes because the result may not be accomplished as people avoid each other. When using this style, unaddressed issues may cause delays and keep recurring. People also may walk on eggshells instead of speaking honestly and learning from one another. Some conflicts become much more troublesome, it may even leave the other party feeling like you don't care, or it can lead to resentment from others whose concerns are being neglected, seeing your actions as shifty. However, avoiding works in situations when you need time to think through a disagreement or have more pressing problems to deal with first. This style allows you to bypass irrelevant topics and save time and energy, not wasting it on low-priority items.

Applicable when:

  • the problem is not a priority, and you do not want to waste time while solving it,

  • the situation is very complicated, so the issue needs to be solved step by step,

  • it is just a short-term relationship with the conflict person,

  • there is no need to decide at this time,

  • you lack the information to make a decision now.

4. Compromising.

Compromising demands moderate assertiveness and cooperation from all parties involved.

With this type of resolution, everyone gets something they want or need. This style of managing conflict often leads to a good enough deal without the necessary effort to get both parties everything they want, especially when time is limited. It creates resolutions that aim for equal gains and losses for both parties, allowing everyone included to meet halfway and reducing strain on the relationship. However, both individuals’ concerns are compromised, and that may leave some residual frustration. If the issue is not resolved fully, it may flare up again. Settling for compromising decisions is of lower quality than successful collaborative decisions.

Applicable when:

  • both sides want the same thing but cannot do it at the same time to reach,

  • both sides have equal power,

  • need to make a quick decision,

  • you do not need to satisfy your desires fully,

  • you want to be in a relationship, to get and give something.

5. Collaborating.

This style demands a high level of cooperation from all parties involved.

Individuals in a dispute are working toward meeting all concerns, translating into both parties being committed to the decision. It leads to seeking inventive solutions that are better than each individual's initial positions and helps to discover through an open exchange of information. Also, it allows us to build trust and respect by resolving problems in a relationship. Although, like other conflict management modes, collaboration has some costs too. It requires complete concentration and creativity, as more time for digging through issues than the other styles. It can even be psychologically demanding as both parties have to be open to new viewpoints, ideas, and challenges, requiring them to work through sometimes sensitive issues. Others may try to exploit your flexibility and openness. Collaborating works best if you have plenty of time and are on the same power level as the other parties involved.

Applicable when:

  • the issue is important to both sides, and neither side wants to withdraw,

  • the parties have a close, long-term relationship,

  • both parties know the problem and each other's wishes,

  • both sides can maintain their interests and listen to one another,

  • both sides feel no difference in position or power.

The key to successfully managing conflict is choosing the right style for each situation. The following questions can help you reflect on which conflict management style to choose:

How important this particular need/issue/problem is for you?

What is your goal/problem solution you would like to reach?

What is your relationship with the other person/people involved?

What consequences could each chosen conflict management style bring?

Do you have the time and energy to address the situation right now?

Answers to these questions can help you decide which style to use in a particular situation based on what you've learned about conflict management.