Conflict typically occurs due to differences between at least two parties that disagree on ideas or find themselves in a difficult situation. The root cause of conflict in the workplace varies, but left unchecked it can become a destructive force. Handling conflict and the ability to remain calm in such a situation is a requirement of any supervisory role. This article looks at various aspects of conflict and offers Dos and Don'ts in any heated situation.
What causes conflict?
Conflict is a multifaceted beast. It can occur between two or more members of a team, between an employee and manager or between departments, sections or directors. It isn't restricted by rank and its effects, if left unchecked, can be widespread.
Sources of conflict range from a simple difference of opinion to extreme prejudice through sexist or racist behaviour. It can be brought about due to poor communication, unrealistic work expectations, or difficult working conditions.
It can develop through ignorance and be exaggerated by office gossip. It can result in members of the workforce feeling isolated, bullied and bitter. It can be surreptitious, in nature, through irritation towards other employees personal habits or it can cause resentment when a colleague is promoted at the expense of another.
While some areas of conflict can be beneficial such as "idea conflict" when handled constructively other elements such as "situation conflict" can lead to dissatisfaction and failure across the entire workforce.
Regardless of type, and source, all conflict needs to be effectively managed if the individuals involved are to work effectively together again in the future.
How to handle conflict situations
Every manager has a different style. True leaders are often the best listeners and the key to handling conflict is clear communication. A popular technique when resolving disagreements is to Acknowledge, Ask, Adapt, and Answer.
Acknowledge the concern
No matter how unreasonable, irrelevant or offensive the initial concern is, the objection is relevant to the individual or parties raising it. By acknowledging their concern in a calm orderly manner it helps to minimise defensiveness from the outset.
This can be easily done by rephrasing the initial objection, starting with the prefix "I can understand why you would ask/think/worry about that..."
Acknowledging the concern, while recognising the depth of feeling helps diffuse the immediate tension so that the complaint is seen as legitimate by those that are aggrieved. This "Acknowledgement", however, must remain on an even keel so that while you are empathising with one party you are neither actively agreeing nor disagreeing with the original issue.
This is difficult to do when confronted with emotion. Over-the-top reactions such as threats or outright insubordination mean immediate steps must be taken to assume control of the situation. It is important to remember that most workplace situations won't immediately come to that.
For example, where members are visibly upset, you can explicitly recognise the strength of feeling by rephrasing your response to "I can see you clearly have strong feelings about this" or "I understand this is important to you". At this point, you are acknowledging that they may feel hurt by the issue without actively committing to one point of view over another.
This initial phase whether you are dealing with two parties in conflict or someone that is in disagreement with you personally ensures that you are beginning to set a tone that will hopefully make them more open to alternative suggestions.
Ask what is behind the conflict
The next part of the process focuses on the immediate issue behind the current conflict. You may not get the root cause, but you can find out the source of information underpinning the objection that may allow you to dispel any misconceptions.
Questioning the other person/parties allows you to reinforce your stance as the "Listener" so that you can explore, inquire and fully understand where potential problems lie.
The concerns you are being confronted with could reveal the current stance and values of those affected, and the seriousness of the situation. Use these insights to gauge your eventual answer.
Take into account:
- the immediate flair point (what brought it to a head this time)
- the issue (which may still be partially obscured at this point)
- any hidden questions, queries or statements
- the reasoning behind their point of view or decision
Listening is fundamental to handling conflict. You do not need to jump to one side in an argument, but if the conversation is allowed to stay on track, you can keep trying to fix the problem.
By asking for the other points of view you are not agreeing that they are right you are simply keeping the channels of communication going. More importantly, you are allowing all sides to have their say, appearing objective while you formulate a way forward.
Good questions get behind the objection and give a clearer picture as to what the issue is that is driving it. Where possible you should ask about a personal or concrete instance - typically the flair point - so that you can understand any personal bias or important values driving the complaint.
Additionally, you should attempt to subtly ascertain the source of information for the immediate conflict. Knowing what caused it this time can help you avoid any repeat trigger points in the future.
The "Ask" phase of this technique ensures that you understand the motivations of the conflicting parties so that you can adjust your behaviour appropriately.
Adapt your answer to fit the topic
Once you move past the initial objection, the insights you have gained from the previous phases allow you to tailor your answer. You can gain control over the situation by steering the discussion in a direction that you can offer experience in.
Six common topics typically enter into conflict. These are environment, finance, health, time, well-being and work.
At least one of these topics will underpin a large area of concern. It may not be immediately apparent which one is central to the issue so now is the ideal time to adjourn further discussion until you've thought things through.
Explain to the other parties that you've taken what they've said on board and are going to need time to address their concerns. Propose a meeting at a later date/time where you'll have the conclusion. You may need to see each party separately in advance of this to get more information but draw a line under the immediate conflict offering a date for a solution.
If either party tries to continue the disagreement, stand firm without stating who is to blame. They have brought the complaint to you, so they need to understand that you can't resolve it without all the facts. You may need to speak to other members of management, third-party witnesses or review company guidelines. Use this as a way out of the immediate stand-off.
As an employer, you have the right to halt any disorderly behaviour. As an employee, you are required to follow the protocol.
If the situation further escalates disciplinary action may be the only outcome but the key is to diffuse any public dispute. By showing empathy towards all involved, the chances are high that everyone will back down until a decision is reached.
At this point, you've hopefully managed to gain or retain the respect of at least some of the people in the room. Regardless, if you follow the steps above you have remained professional allowing further discussion in a calmer climate.
Answer calmly and with interest
Once you've had time to review the situation, the flair-up and what caused it you are in a position to offer a solution. The participants have had the legitimacy of their concerns acknowledged, and with the questions that have been asked you are now in a position, possibly after research, to "Answer".
The recipients are more likely to listen to, understand and accept the answer you give because you took on board their point of view. Trust is important at this time and, hopefully, you've either preserved it or gained some by asking questions calmly and respectfully.
Even if they don't like what they hear, because you've arranged a follow-up meeting after the initial conflict, they are less likely to be as emotive as they originally were.
The answer based on the topic at the core of the conflict will help set the pace and temperament of the meeting - and its resolution.
- If the issue was regarding overtime, the answer may be renegotiating recompense or offering time off in exchange for additional hours.
- If it is regarding well-fare, new safety procedures can be put in place or training offered.
- If miscommunication was central to either of the topics, a carefully worded company statement can address any misconceptions.
Personal conflict is more difficult to deal with, especially when one party is being unreasonable. There may not be a central topic such as finance, health or well-being at the centre of it. Two people may simply not like each other. However, in the workplace, they have a responsibility to at least try to get along.
Bullying or harassment needs to be faced with disciplinary action but some things, such as taking offence at someone's personal hygiene, require careful diplomatic dialogue. You need the time to plan your response and even subjects as difficult as that on a one to one basis can be made easier given time and planning.
The answer part of this technique isn't simply addressing the party to blame. In fact, it's counterproductive to do that where company rules haven't been broken. It can involve setting out a process for answering the question - perhaps through a number of company policies changes or further debate with the staff.
Managing a team is not easy, but when handling conflict situations, your response at key stages can make it more difficult. A true leader knows when to listen, when to ask questions and how to take the time to respond in a fair and reasonable manner.
Handling Conflict: Dos and Don'ts Checklist
In any given conflict it is important to stay calm, no matter how emotive others around you become. Use the following checklist as a way to temper any situation and hopefully you'll be able to turn the issue into a positive.
- Remain calm
- Tackle conflict early to keep it from escalating
- Try to avoid instinctive reactions
- Stay assertive
- Think the problem through, and plan a way to deal with the immediate conflict and long term issue
- Refrain from offering your own opinion before researching the full picture
- Avoid the issue and ignore the conflict
- Take it personally (unless it is personal)
- Jump in without assessing and understanding the underlying problem
- Respond to aggression with anger
- Handle conflict in public
Training in Handling Conflict
Flexebee offers a range of courses relating to handling conflict.
Our Conflict Management E-Learning course looks at how to identify problem areas and offers appropriate responses to threats and aggression. It also looks at how you can promote positivity in the workplace to help reduce conflict.
It discusses how to diffuse the situation while looking further into the cause and effect of personal, situation and idea conflict.
The Challenging Behaviour Awareness course is useful for those in the care sector as it deals with handling challenging situations and understanding the different kinds of challenging behaviour that exist. Not all conflicts will be with other members of the workforce or between members. In care, you need to be prepared for issues with patients, patients' families and conflict with external third parties such as other agencies when working in this profession.
Flexebee also offers a Preventing Radicalisation program to provide further education and awareness on radicalisation and how frontline carers can prevent it.
Communication is relevant to all work environments. We offer a range of e-learning programmes on Communication Skills, Complaints Handling, Equality and Diversity training and, Care Planning training for care home management to supplement our conflict courses.