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The HR guide to conflict resolution: Building a harmonious workplace

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Conflict is inherent in most human interactions, and the workplace is no exception. Whether in a quiet office or a bustling factory, workplace conflict may arise from disagreements about who runs the project team, who gets to control limited resources or who is to blame for a setback. For every HR professional, conflict resolution in the workplace is a required skill. Without the ability to efficiently contain, analyze and settle conflict, the path to building a harmonious workplace can be long and difficult.

This article will discuss effective conflict resolution strategies, from a basic definition of this essential leadership trait to resources for developing conflict management skills to techniques for successfully navigating a typical conflict resolution process.

What is employment conflict resolution?

Conflict resolution is the management process of identifying, analyzing, addressing and resolving disputes or disagreements between individuals or groups within an organization. It involves identifying the underlying employee relations issues, managing emotions, balancing viewpoints, facilitating communication and finding mutually acceptable solutions to help restore harmony to the team and productivity to the business.

What causes workplace conflicts?

Workplace conflicts can arise from various causes, including differences in communication styles, personality clashes, competing interests or goals, scarce resources, organizational changes, role ambiguity, power struggles and unresolved past conflicts.

According to The Harvard Business Review, conflict management can consume up to 40 percent of a manager’s time. The Harvard Business Review cited the four most common triggers for employee-manager conflict as poor communication, performance expectations, time expectations and role expectations.

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Levels of Workplace Conflict

No matter the size, industry or function of the organization, workplace conflicts may occur at intrapersonal, interpersonal, intragroup or intergroup levels.

Intrapersonal Conflict

Intrapersonal conflict arises from confusion or frustration within an individual. For example, if a worker lacks confidence or was not provided with adequate training by the organization, they may be troubled by a sense that they are not meeting role expectations or completing assigned tasks correctly.

In some cases, a conflict that appears to be between two employees may be an intrapersonal role conflict. For example, a supervisor may think that micro-management shows they are doing a good job while their subordinate may interpret the extra attention as an indication that their work is unsatisfactory.

Another type of role conflict can occur when a worker is the leader of one team and a member of another. Role ambiguity often arises from an incomplete job description or indifferent onboarding. Without clear guidelines communicating what the company expects, a worker may be uncertain of the job objectives, whether they are doing a good job or how far they can proceed on their own authority.

Interpersonal Conflict

Interpersonal conflict refers to disputes between two individuals. Interpersonal conflict typically arises between co-workers or between managers and employees and may be triggered by a myriad of professional or personal issues. Two employees of equal rank in an organization may fight over work procedures, resources or behaviors. Conflict with managers and their subordinates may arise due to project failure, lack of teamwork, low productivity or poor quality.

There is no level in an organization that is immune to disruption by interpersonal conflict. Just as two co-workers may argue over equitable allocation of resources, the CEO may argue with a member of the board of directors over hiring decisions or strategies for growth. Wherever interpersonal conflict occurs, it undermines group teamwork and individual engagement, compromising the ability of the organization to achieve its goals.

Intragroup Conflict

Intragroup conflict refers to conflict between members of the same group. We have all heard about “infighting” undermining the performance of a team. Although the group is working toward objectives that all members hold in common, there is disagreement about how to reach those goals. Group members may argue over project costs, methods, timing, leadership, responsibilities or communication.

Intragroup conflict can be further examined in three primary forms:

  • Process conflict is when group members agree on the destination but not on how to get there.
  • Relationship conflict involves personal incompatibilities between group members.
  • Task conflict is disagreement about the content or objectives of the project or task.

Intergroup Conflict

Intergroup conflict is a disagreement between two or more teams, departments or other organizational units and typically arises over competition for resources, conflicting priorities or divergent interests. Unfortunately, intergroup conflict is common in the workplace and could include conflicts like union versus management, “old guard” versus newcomers, branch office versus headquarters or domestic versus offshore workers.

When human beings form a group to pursue an objective, there are differences in physical size, mental acuity, wealth, experience or specialized knowledge that translate into differences in autonomy, authority and earning power. It is natural for one group member to fear that another member will try to take credit for their work, win a promotion that they deserve or receive a greater share of the rewards for success, but this can contribute to intergroup conflict in the workplace.

The Unique Role of Intergroup Competition

Intergroup competition can sometimes represent conflict in a healthy form, helping organizations to continuously improve. Competition can help settle the question of which product is the best or can demonstrate which team is most effective at pleasing the customer.

However, intergroup competition becomes unhealthy when, for example, one team interferes with another or when both teams in a merger would rather hold onto their separate identities than work together for the benefit of the company.

Sources of Intergroup Workplace Conflicts

The human resources team must be watchful for the many causes of intergroup conflict in the workplace, which can include:

  • Personal Identity: Tensions may develop over differences in gender, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation or other aspects of an individual’s identity.
  • Fairness: Teams accountable for measured results may harbor resentment toward teams that are not.
  • Communication: Failure to communicate may lead to frustration that eventually becomes anger.
  • Dependency: Conflict may occur when the progress of one group must wait on the results of another group.
  • Shared Resources: Groups that share spaces or tools may become de facto competitors.
  • Us Versus Them: Teams may develop an “us-versus-them” mentality: for example, the marketing department versus the field sales group versus the engineers.

Whether a conflict involves individuals or groups, employees may respond in a variety of ways, including withdrawal, confrontation, passive-aggressive behavior or seeking mediation from HR or senior management.

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Ten Benefits of Workplace Conflict Resolution

Practicing healthy workplace conflict resolution processes can have several benefits for not only the employees or teams in conflict but also for the HR team. Here are ten benefits of workplace conflict resolution.

  • Strengthen relationships. Resolving conflicts helps promote trust and mutual respect between team members. Both are prerequisites for compromise and collaboration.
  • Boost employee morale. Successful conflict resolution helps prevent negative emotions from festering and undermining the development of a positive work environment.
  • Reduce stress. Resolving workplace conflicts can help alleviate workplace tension and employee stress, fostering a healthier work environment.
  • Reveal insights. The conflict resolution process may uncover underlying issues and areas for improvement concerning tools, procedures and personnel.
  • Improve retention. Creating a supportive and respectful workplace culture through conflict resolution can help enhance employee satisfaction and retention.
  • Increase productivity. When an employee is no longer keeping their guard up due to workplace conflict, they can place a greater focus on being productive.
  • Foster creativity. An atmosphere of trust and mutual respect helps employees feel free to brainstorm, bring forward suggestions and openly share ideas.
  • Develop new leaders. Participants in the conflict management process can learn how to listen, collaborate and compromise, three essential leadership functions.
  • Enhance employee engagement. When employees can see that their concerns are dealt with promptly and fairly, engagement and job satisfaction may be improved.
  • Achieve goals. Resolving conflicts facilitates employee alignment with team objectives and helps strengthen their individual commitment to organizational objectives.

20 Conflict Resolution Techniques

  • Be proactive in addressing conflict. When conflict is reported or apparent, intervene quickly to prevent conflicts from escalating and impacting productivity or morale.
  • Acknowledge the conflict. Do not allow conflict to be swept under the rug. Encourage both of the parties involved to recognize the existence of the conflict and its potential impact on the organization.
  • Meet on neutral ground. Provide a safe and neutral environment for parties to discuss the conflict openly. Be mindful that one employee may feel inhibited in their adversary’s territory.
  • Set ground rules. Establish guidelines for respectful communication and behavior during conflict resolution discussions. Do not permit aggression, interruption or name-calling.
  • Define the problem from both perspectives. Ask the parties to help you define the specific issues or concerns that have contributed to the conflict.
  • Let everyone have a say. Encourage all involved parties to express their perspectives and feelings. Do not allow one party to dominate or interrupt the other person, regardless of job title.
  • Listen. Ask each party to explain their feelings. Listen attentively and seek to understand their emotions without judgment and without trying to jump to a solution.
  • Remain unbiased. Maintain a position of professional neutrality and impartiality while facilitating the resolution process.
  • Avoid separate discussions. Encourage open dialogue and transparency by involving all parties in conflict resolution discussions.
  • Control the level of emotion. When emotions are running high, take a break. Allow a distressed party to cool down and regain their composure before continuing the discussion.
  • Bring in a third-party mediator. If the parties in a conflict are unable to resolve their differences through discussion, consider engaging a mediator to facilitate a compromise.
  • Develop solutions. Ask both parties to collaboratively explore and evaluate potential solutions, aiming for consensus or compromise.
  • Determine the role of each side in a solution. Clarify the responsibilities and actions expected from each party to implement the agreed-upon solution.
  • Keep the discussion confidential to the parties. To help facilitate a candid discussion of the circumstances, assure the parties that the discussion is confidential.
  • Develop collaborative solutions. Encourage parties to articulate their concerns. Use the opposing definitions of the problem to develop a basis for collaborative solutions.
  • Use “I” language. Ask the parties to express personal feelings and perspectives without assigning blame or making accusations.
  • Confirm the need for resolution. Get agreement from all parties on the importance of resolving the conflict and establishing a better atmosphere.
  • Identify opportunities for compromise. Encourage parties to explore mutually acceptable solutions and concessions. Find the middle ground.
  • Agree on a resolution plan. Facilitate agreement on concrete steps and timelines for implementing the resolution.
  • Check in regularly. Follow up to help ensure that the resolution is effective and sustainable.

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Developing Conflict Resolution Skills

Conflict resolution also involves a variety of skills. Every HR professional will recognize that they already excel in some of the following skills, while others can be more fully developed through conflict resolution training and study. Here are 10 essential skills for conflict resolution:

  • Active Listening: Recognize issues by paying close attention to verbal and nonverbal cues.
  • Emotional Intelligence: Understand your own emotions and empathize with others.
  • Patience: Remain calm and composed during emotionally charged discussions.
  • Impartiality: Facilitate discussions based on objective criteria rather than personal biases.
  • Positivity: Maintain optimism and a constructive attitude while addressing conflicts.
  • Perspective-taking: Consider different viewpoints and the root causes of conflicts.
  • Mediation: Guide discussions to facilitate mutual understanding and eventual agreement.
  • Problem-solving: Analyze complex issues and generate creative solutions to help resolve conflicts.
  • Accountability: Hold yourself and others accountable for commitments and actions.
  • Legal Knowledge: Know when conflict resolution involves compliance with employment laws.

HR professionals can enhance these and other conflict resolution skills through training programs, workshops, reading and real-world practice. Seeking feedback, learning from experienced mentors and staying updated on best practices can also contribute to skill development. For example, professional training or certificates for HR professionals are available from the Society of Human Resources Management, SkillPath, eCornell and New York University’s School of Professional Studies.

Creating a Harmonious Workplace

Conflict resolution is a critical leadership skill for HR professionals and business owners alike. By understanding the causes and levels of conflict, employing effective resolution strategies and fostering a culture of open communication and mutual respect, organizations can help mitigate conflicts and promote collaboration, employee growth and a more harmonious workplace.

Don’t let unresolved conflicts undermine the potential of your workforce. Contact Higginbotham’s HR Services team and take the first step toward building a more harmonious and productive work environment.

Not sure where to start? Talk to someone who wants to listen.

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