Workplace Conflict Resolution
Article Index
Workplace Conflict Resolution
Expert Opinion
Survey and Research
Example Cases
Measure and Evaluate

Expert Opinion

Tim Roberts, a conflict management and transformation specialist at the University of Chester, in the United Kingdom, highlights the following important issues in connection with workplace conflicts:

  • Managers spend 40% to 90% of their time dealing with conflicts in one form or another
  • Unresolved conflicts lead to at least 50% of resignations
  • The cost of replacing one employee is more than their yearly salary.
  • Senior HR executives spend up to 20% of their time in litigation activities, most of which relate to conflict in the workplace. [1]

Roberts believes that training in conflict dynamics can empower workplace coaches to achieve better conflict resolution.

Since conflict resolution has such a significant impact upon workplace performance, gaining expertise in this field has many worthwhile benefits. Janice Dreachslin, professor of health policy and administration at Pennsylvania State University, and Diane Kiddy, director of governmental affairs at Universal Health Services Inc., underscore the fact that managing workplace conflicts consumes a significant amount of time and energy. [2] Citing the Mediation Training Institute International, it is estimated that more than 65% of performance problems result from strained relationships among employees. Generally, these are not related and result in a deficit in an individual employee’s skill or motivation. The table below (Figure 1), adapted from Dreachslin and Kiddy, summarises common causes of conflict, and suggests certain styles that may be employed for the resolution of workplace conflicts:

People tend to focus mainly on one particular style when resolving conflicts. However, the art of leadership is to know what style is appropriate to use at any given time. Organisational research suggests that a collaborating style leads to enhanced organisational flexibility. In addition, the collaborating style used with the accommodating style tends to lead to positive organisational climates when compared with the other styles.
















The following diagram (Figure 2), adapted from Callanan and Perri, depicts the balance between assertiveness and cooperativeness in relation to the defined five styles for conflict resolution. [3]




























The presence of conflict in the workplace can lead to good and bad outcomes. Robert Bacal, author of Performance Management – A Briefcase Book, states that in his experience, “the issue that generates the most emotion and frustrated comments is conflict within organisations.” [4] Workplace conflict is usually regarded as being counterproductive. However, if the parties involved understand the nature of conflict, then it is possible to harness its positive energy and direct it toward problem solving and organisational improvement.

Bacal describes two ways of considering conflict:

  1. The ordered, or traditional view of organisational conflict, in which all workplace conflict is believed to be dysfunctional. Traditional organisations aim to create perfectly defined job responsibilities, authorities and associated job functions. Orderliness and stability are valued, and conflict is repressed. This type of organisation is modelled on a smoothly running clock, where each part has is place and function. The desire to have an orderly environment is inherent within most people. However, in practice, many organisations are characterised by constant change, and therefore require frequent adaptation. For this reason, attempting to design structures that eliminate conflict/disagreement while operating in a dynamic environment can absorb a lot of unnecessary organisational energy. At the same time, it can suppress any positive outcomes that might have arisen from healthy disagreements.
  2. The functional view of organisational conflict, in which workplace disagreements are viewed as a productive force for stimulating employees to increase their knowledge and skills, leading to a contribution through innovation and productivity improvement. In this type of organisation, the keys to success are believed to be found not in structure, clarity and orderliness, but rather through creativity, responsiveness, and adaptability. This functional view of conflict regards conflict resolution as a mechanism for providing employees with ongoing operational feedback. In this environment, organisations manage positive conflict while avoiding situations where conflict might erode team cohesiveness and productivity.

Bullying in the Workplace

Bullying is one of many inappropriate forms of behaviour that can occur in the workplace. Cindy Mahoney, head of talent management at UK outplacement specialists company, Fairplace, outlines the following actions, which may be construed as bullying:

  • Insults – critical or demeaning comments intended to humiliate or ridicule
  • Threatening Behaviour
  • Harassment – constant pestering or psychological mind games
  • Rejection – in the form of social exclusion. [5]

Through these actions, the bully attempts to create an imbalance of power, which can be exploited for his or her own benefit. According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s 2004 survey “Managing Conflict at Work,” bullying costs UK employers lost some £2 billion, and 18 million working days per year. The physical and emotional impact upon individuals that experience bullying is significant. These unwelcome effects often extend to work teams, organisations, relatives and friends.

Personal consequences include:

  • High levels of stress
  • Loss of self-confidence
  • Depression, sleeping difficulties and weight problems
  • Deterioration of personal relationships.

Team and organisational level consequences include:

  • Low morale
  • Absenteeism
  • Increased staff turnover
  • Reductions in productivity
  • Increased numbers of grievance cases and potential employment tribunal claims if problems are not addressed adequately.

What is the cure for bullying problems? Maureen Fitzgerald, an expert in conflict and collaboration, writes that once it has been determined that a true case of bullying exists, then there are really only two courses of action:

  1. Liberate the Bully; thus ensuring that everyone is aware of the real situation. Bullies typically lack empathy and so usually will not understand the impact of their behaviour until confronted face-to-face. An effective way to do this is via a group conversation, which involves all the people affected by the bully’s behaviour, including the bully and the bullied people. The idea behind the group conversation is to expose the bully and help them understand how it feels to be bullied. This will hopefully enable the bully to begin to understand, and to think before behaving badly in the future.
  2. Remove the Bully; if the bully’s actions and attitudes do not change, the bully should be removed from the workplace. In the final analysis employers must protect their employees from psychological harm, while providing a work environment that supports a sense of dignity and emotional well-being. Bullies cause significant harm to staff and the workplace, and for this reason they should not be tolerated. [6]

 Personality Clashes

Supervisors often spend a large proportion of their time dealing with personality clashes and acting as peacekeepers for squabbling employees. Author Dr. Robert Ramsey outlines the following potential causes of workplace conflict:

  • Misunderstandings based on age, race or cultural differences
  • Out-of-control competition
  • Intolerance, prejudice, discrimination or bigotry
  • erceived inequities
  • Misunderstandings, rumours or falsehoods concerning an individual or group
  • Longstanding grudges
  • Misplaced loyalties
  • Fear of job loss or of being overlooked for promotion
  • Sexual tensions/harassment
  • Perceived threats to security, power or status
  • Workplace romances gone wrong
  • Comparisons of performance ratings or bonuses
  • Blaming others for mistakes and mishaps
  • Alcohol or drug-induced irrational behaviour. [7]

Workplace conflicts may continue long after the reasons behind them have been forgotten. Generally, the causes of conflicts are less important than the disruptive and distracting behaviour that they produce. Harmful workplace behaviour may range from shouting matches and name calling to nasty tricks involving sabotage or destruction of property, which may perhaps lead to actual violence. The following “Seven Don’ts” are suggested for dealing with workplace interpersonal conflicts:

  • Don’t assume that interpersonal problems will go away without intervention
  • Don’t ignore clashes or wait too long to step in – early intervention relates to less damage and easier resolution
  • Don’t take sides – this creates enemies
  • Don’t spend much time attributing blame – this is looking backward while resolution seeks to move forward
  • Don’t treat the warring parties like children – despite their actions
  • Don’t force the disputants to apologise as this can cause humiliation and deepen their alienation
  • Don’t confront the parties in public – this can lead to resistance in order to save face.

The climate of the workplace itself may have a significant influence upon the generation, or reduction of workplace conflicts. Too much pressure or competition, and too many unrealistic expectations and unrealistic deadlines can lead to a “powder keg” environment, where conflicts are endemic. Some work-tested ways for dealing with on-the-job conflicts are outlined below:

  • Encourage employees to settle conflicts themselves before bringing them to management
  • Separate the disputing parties if necessary – this may involve a transfer, a change of shift, or a move to another location/workstation
  • Clearly delineate lines of authority to eliminate divisiveness and power struggles
  • Reduce competition by stressing teamwork
  • Remind employees to carefully consider both how they say things and what they say
  • Provide formal anger-management or conflict-resolution training, as required
  • Impose a “cooling off” period for disputants
  • Require disputing parties to write down their view of the issues, including their recommended remedies, and refer the disagreeing parties to counselling, mediation or arbitration
  • Focus upon the unacceptable behaviour of the disputants, not upon their personality or character
  • Get co-workers involved in helping the parties to resolve their differences
  • Appeal to the disputants’ sense of pride and professionalism
  • Use appropriate progressive disciplinary steps as specified in workplace contracts, including reprimands, suspension with pay or suspension without pay, to emphasise to the offending factions the serious nature of the conflicts
  • As a last resort use termination as a consequence of continued conflict: “Get along or move along”.

Employers may often consider that it is kinder to dismiss a troublesome employee on redundancy grounds, rather than taking them through a disciplinary process leading to dismissal for misconduct. However, this is not advisable. Should the employee appeal to an employment tribunal and it be found that there was no real redundancy situation, the dismissal would be deemed unfair. It is unlawful to discriminate against employees. Dismissing an employee for any of the following reasons would be unfair, and there is no cap on the amount of compensation that may be awarded:

  • Gender
  • Pregnancy or maternity absence
  • Marital status
  • Race
  • Disability
  • Religion or belief
  • Trade Union membership
  • Gender re-assignment
  • Sexual orientation
  • Part-time workers
  • Fixed-term workers.

Workplace conflict resolution may be simplified by providing staff with the following: (a) written contracts, (b) written discipline and grievance procedures, and (c) a detailed staff handbook. This documentation is not only a legal requirement, it is also an invaluable tool for ensuring that staff are clearly aware of their rights and responsibilities.

Monitoring Email and Internet Use

Chauncey DePree, a professor at the University of Southern Mississippi, and Rebecca Jude, a principal from the law firm Jude & Fude, write that the monitoring of email and Internet use has become a necessity within growing numbers of organisations. According to the American Management Association’s 2005 Electronic Monitoring & Surveillance Survey, 76% of employers monitored web site connections, 26% had fired workers for misusing the Internet, and another 25% had terminated employees for email misuse.

Inexpensive software packages have made it feasible to rapidly detect and to act upon misuse. Employers are responsible for illegal, discriminatory or offensive communications that are transmitted over their systems or viewed by others from a company computer screen. Sexually explicit, graphically violent or racially inappropriate web sites open to view by co-workers may be used to support claims of discriminatory behaviour or a hostile work environment. Emails sent by managers may also be used by employees to prove claims of corporate misconduct. Since emails can appear to be very informal, managers and employees are more likely to record matters in them they would be most unlikely to put in a letter. However, unlike letters, emails enable impulsive and thoughtless comments to be forwarded to thousands of people with the touch of a button. [12]

Resolution Methodologies

Kelly Mollica, a leadership development specialist with the Centre Group, and associate professor of business at Bethel College in the United States, writes that it is important that managers do not become involved in the resolution of all workplace conflicts. Managers seeking to deal with all such conflicts will be drawn away from more important work, create a climate of dependency and deprive employees of the opportunity of solving their own problems. [13]

The following steps are suggested to empower employees to take responsibility for resolving conflicts, and to enable managers to intervene only when absolutely necessary:

  1. Listen and support employees involved in a conflict without automatically taking ownership of the problem.
  2. Provide ongoing employee training in conflict resolution, beginning with self-assessments relating to conflict-management styles and the pros and cons of using a particular style.
  3. Communicate clear expectations that employees are expected to attempt to resolve conflicts before approaching a manager for help.
  4. Set specific guidelines regarding what employees should do if they experience conflict.
  5. Create a culture in which conflict management is valued by treating it as a core job competency. Incorporate observable and measurable criteria, based on guidelines or protocols for resolving conflict, into job descriptions and performance reviews.
  6. Continually remind employees to focus on behaviour, not personalities, thus avoiding creating animosity or damaging relationships.
  7. Have an open-door policy letting employees know that you are available to coach them on how to work through specific situations, and schedule follow-up meetings for specific cases.
  8. Know where to draw the line by clearly communicating that management must always be notified and involved of certain types of conflict, for example, indications of physical violence, harassment, theft or illegal substance use/or possession.

No workplace will ever be totally devoid of conflict, which is a natural outcome in an environment where employees with varying priorities, ideas and behaviours must work together toward a common goal. If managers sensibly “push back”, it may enable employees to learn valuable workplace skills, and allow managers to protect their own time.

Doug Hickok, founder of Accept No Limits Training and Coaching in Richmond, Virginia, provides four steps towards defusing workplace conflict:

Step 1 – Mirroring: This is an appropriate response to a person seeking to express something believed to be important or having the potential to cause conflict. The listener mirrors the speaker by repeating small segments of what they have heard, whilst asking for confirmation if the comments are correct. Mirroring does not necessarily indicate agreement, but reveals that the speaker has been heard and understood. Mirroring also helps to slow the pace of the interchange, allowing more time for calm thought.

Step 2 – Validating: After the speaker has finished talking and the listener has mirrored comments appropriately, a validating statement may be made. Commonly, there will be something communicated with which the listener genuinely concurs. A validating statement sums up and confirms all points of agreement.

Step 3 – Empathising: This involves the listener using emotion-based statements to convey to the speaker that he or she can identify with the speaker’s feelings. In Hickok’s opinion, this step is an important key for lifting difficult interactions onto more positive ground. Commonly, speakers want others to recognise the emotions that they are experiencing, and an empathetic statement can confirm this, whilst not necessarily indicating complete agreement with the point of view expressed.

Step 4 – Behaviour Change Request Contract: After empathising, listeners can further defuse the conflict by making a behaviour change request; this ultimately is intended to become a behaviour change contract with the parties agreeing on appropriate actions to be taken. Behaviour change contracts should spell out in detail what is desired, with confirmation being given by the parties involved regarding their willingness to commit to what has been requested. Mirroring, validation, empathy and behaviour change contracts can enable conversations to be carried out in a safe and respectful way. Using this methodology, participants are able to respond to each other’s viewpoints after listening closely to what has been said without necessarily relinquishing their own position. Validation and empathy help to find common ground between the two parties, while behaviour change requests allow them to state very clearly what is required. [14]

Working with Aggrieved Customers

Dr. Andrew Edelman, an expert in conflict management, provides the following key strategies for effectively resolving disagreements and disputes with customers:

  1. Establish a Connection: Both verbal and non-verbal language should be used to create an atmosphere of interest and genuine concern. Phrases that generate negative imagery such as “What’s the problem?” or body language that indicates disinterest or disrespect should be avoided.
  2. Acknowledge Feelings: It is important for staff to acknowledge the customer’s perspectives, points of view and feelings of stress, anger or fear – even if they have an opposite viewpoint. Often the person yelling the loudest feels the greatest lack of control and, deep down, is seeking someone who will understand his or her pain.
  3. Explore Options: Conflict resolution must be a partnership; for this reason, it is critical to always include the customer in the decision-making process. Never assume what the customer wants, always ask. By exploring options through asking questions and eliciting customer feedback, the communication process is more likely to move towards a productive course of action.
  4. Negotiate a Resolution: Once the customer has agreed on a course of action, the decision should be documented with a copy given to the customer. This cements the agreement and partnership in the problem-solving process and gives feelings of control back to the customer. It also increases the likelihood of establishing a loyal, long-term client relationship. [15]

Emotional Intelligence

All conflicts tend to have a high emotional content, and so emotional intelligence plays an important role when resolving workplace issues. Dreachslin and Kiddy [2] cite Daniel Goleman of the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence. Goleman described the central components of emotional intelligence as:

  1. Self-Awareness (our own feelings)
  2. Self-Management (managing our emotions)
  3. Social Awareness (recognising other people’s feelings) and
  4. Social Skills (managing emotions in others).

An understanding of these factors can assist managers to create trusting relationships, perform more effectively under pressure, make better decisions, and defuse potential workplace conflicts. The following chart (see Figure 3), adapted from Goleman, outlines the five components of emotional intelligence that are particularly applicable to the workplace:


















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