Resolving workplace conflicts can be one of the trickiest jobs for a manager. A 2008 study found that the average employee spends 2.8 hours per week dealing with conflict in the office. The very existence of a conflict can often blur the line between personal and professional affairs, making it uncomfortable for many people. When you’re the one with the authority to resolve the situation, navigating that line can seem like a gargantuan task.
Fortunately, most workplace conflicts stem from a handful of common sources and can be effectively addressed with a generally applicable playbook. Here is our five-step process for workplace conflict resolution.
Identify the Source of the Workplace Conflict
You should always begin by asking every party to the conflict to relay their perception of it to you in private. This allows you to form the big picture by viewing it through every participant’s eyes. Ask them not just how it’s impacting their daily life at work but also whether it’s had an impact on their personal life or areas outside the workplace.
The most important element during these discussions is to ensure that all parties feel heard and understood. You don’t want to do anything that puts somebody on the defensive. If you do, they will shift from being open and honest with you to avoiding accountability for their actions.
Get to the Root of the Problem
In any discussion about a conflict, your ultimate goal is not to hear what the participants are telling you about the conflict, but rather to find out what’s really the underlying cause. Most people are naturally averse to argumentative friction in the workplace, so any professional conflict is likely the result of a “straw that broke the camel’s back” scenario. Chances are the inciting event that led people into your office is not the actual cause of the situation.
Once you’ve heard stories from every side, try to identify the root cause by asking questions that might confirm your judgment about the cause.
Ask each party what they would find personally acceptable as a resolution to the issue. If both sides of the conflict say something similar, then your job is relatively easy. However, in most cases you’ll probably struggle to find the uniting factor between the two proposed resolutions.
It is important not to validate each participant’s perception of the conflict, but simply to hear it and make sure the participant knows they’re being heard.
The goal at this stage is to understand what each participant believes they need to resolve the issue — leave the worrying about how that relates to the root cause for the next step.
Identify Solutions That Both Parties Support
Once you’ve heard from both sides, you will be able to conclude what root cause is actually generating the conflict. Then you can begin negotiating a satisfactory solution with everybody.
It can be helpful to picture the conflict as a Venn diagram. Your goal is to bring the three circles together, then find ways in which those three differing perceptions overlap at the center. Chances are that your solution lies in that overlap.
Even if there is friction about the proposed solution, it’s vital that you arrive at one communally agreed-upon solution. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It simply needs to be as clear and objective as possible, and reasonably meet at least some portion of each participant’s desired outcome.
Even if each party doesn’t feel completely satisfied, at least you’ve established a commonly agreed-upon foundation that you can use to neutralize the conflict and allow normal workplace behavior to resume.
Agree Upon Further Action
Once you’ve agreed upon a solution, you need to provide both parties with actionable steps. Don’t rely on them to leave the meeting completely changed — your goal is to modify and regulate behavior and action, not attitudes. Toward that end, each party must clearly understand what is expected of them going forward and how they’re expected to interact with each other from this point on.
It’s important to check in with both parties several times during subsequent weeks. This allows you ensure that the agreed-upon solution and mitigating steps are being performed, and that each party is satisfied by the results.
If it appears that the solution is not effective or that the core issue is likely to be unresolved, return to the “explore solutions” phase and try again.
Above all, remember that your ultimate task is not to “solve” the conflict, it’s to resolve it. The warring parties may not become close friends, but they do need to come to an understanding that allows normal productivity to resume.
Does your organization need help with workplace conflict resolution? Then come explore our conflict resolution training course today!
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