5 Steps to resolve workplace conflict

How often do you have workplace conflict? Sometimes conflict arises due to work, other times conflict arises due to personal situations. No matter what the reason, here are five steps towards resolving conflict in the workplace.

When’s the last time you dreaded going to work? Hopefully not too often, but it happens. Why does this fear arise? There is a good chance that you have a job because you need one, not necessarily because you want that particular role. Workplace conflict often arises when there is a conflict at work. What causes work conflict? A ton of things!  Salary, personal relationships, politics, management style, bias, work-style, and others. So what are some simple steps to resolve workplace conflict?

Step 1: Focus on the behavior or events, not the personality

In the workplace, it is easy to focus on the person instead of the issue. If someone makes a mistake, we often resort to a negative response that focuses on the person. Instead of saying “you’re an idiot, how could you have made that mistake,” reframe. Say something closer to “this is a bad mistake, can you help me understand how this happened?” Even though you are saying essentially the same thing, how someone receives that message will be much different. Instead of focusing on the person, you are focusing on the situation. Depersonalizing workplace conflict can lead to a better working relationships that focus on the issues.

Step 2: Listen carefully

It is easy to sit and wait to respond. You are at work, you are busy, and you want to get out what you need to say as quickly as possible. There is a difference between pausing and waiting for someone to finish speaking and truly listening. Sometimes, when listening carefully, it becomes easier to resolve a conflict because you recognize what the problem actually is. Think about the last time you were angry at someone for something. Did you listen to what that person said? Or did you just wait, fuming, hoping that the person would stop talking so you could go on your rant. In the workplace, this happens all the time. Managers have expectations, and when those expectations are not met, they just want to tell someone. Often, they tell employees.

Whether we like it or not, employees often have perfectly valid reasons for making mistakes. But, instead of carefully listening to why someone made mistakes, the manager often rails on the employee for making the mistake in the first place. At the same time, there is an opportunity for employees to listen carefully to their managers. It goes both ways. Instead of waiting to defend yourself while you’re being berated, really listen to the root of the complaint. Is it about work product? Something else? When you respond, it will be easier to overcome the conflict if you really listen and understand what the cause is.

Step 3: What do you agree on?

The funny thing about workplace conflict is that it exists in a microcosm. Your employer hired you for a reason, or you hired your employee for a reason. You accepted the job after talking to your coworkers and have a mutual interest in the mission and values of the organization (maybe!). There are common points that you agree on. Getting to those common areas of agreement is critical to resolving other pieces of the conflict. If you disagree on strategic direction of an area, that’s fine! What do you agree on? Start with the agreeable areas, and then navigate to the points of disagreement. This sets a positive foundation for the conversation, and it will be easier to have tougher conversations.

Step 4: Develop a resolution plan

All conflicts are resolvable. As much as we like to believe that some conflicts are unresolvable, this is mostly untrue. In the workplace, if you want to continuing your working relationship, develop a plan. Maybe it makes sense to check back in weekly or monthly? Whatever the plan is, it is important to develop one. A simple resolution plan, like “let’s revisit this in a week to make sure we are on the same page,” is best. If the conflict is severe, a more complicated resolution plan works more effectively. Oftentimes, we pause on developing a plan to resolve conflicts because it takes time, and we ultimately hurt feelings. Don’t pause! If you are willing to make a strategic plan on how to spend your operating budget, then make a strategic plan to resolve conflict. Conflict resolution is just as important, if not more, than any other workplace issue.

Step 5: Follow-through and learn

The worst part about workplace conflict is that when it arises once, it arises again and again. Often, HR implements improvement plans that focus on work productivity. When a third-party steps in and gives you an arbitrarily plan to follow, it is hard to follow-through and learn. If you follow the steps listed above, you will have a better chance of learning from your experience and following through on the conflict’s resolution. Instead of worrying about the politics and the drama (unless you love it, then I have no advice), try to get to conflict resolution. It will make you a more productive worker, a better colleague, and might just translate into a happier home life.

Next Time

Next time, I will discuss family conflicts. These are harder because there is more investment, but there is always an opportunity to resolve them, if you want to.