To mediate disputes more effectively, learn these five strategies for resolving conflict at work
In a world filled with billions of unique human beings, it should come as no surprise that conflict is a common experience - even in the workplace. After all, companies hire diverse groups of people who all have their own individual experiences, cultural attitudes, and thought processes. Obviously, some conflicts are bound to occur. The question is, how familiar are you with the best strategies for resolving conflict? And do you know when to use these different techniques?
In this post, we'll explore the five key strategies for resolving conflict and why each can be an effective way to resolve disagreements in the workplace. We'll also examine the best times to use each of these strategies and provide some helpful tips to improve your attempts to successfully resolve interpersonal conflict.
Why you need effective strategies for conflict resolution
To understand why it's so important to know how to use effective conflict resolution strategies in the workplace, it helps to recognize the danger that unresolved conflict can pose to any business operation. When employees have unresolved disagreements, that conflict can have a serious impact on the company that employs them. Some examples of the costs associated with lingering conflict can include:
Reduced employee morale and disruption to team cohesion
Lowered employee productivity
Higher rates of absenteeism and employee turnover
Disruption to operational efficiency
Negative impact on project progress
Damage to the company culture due to regular work disruptions
Growing workplace toxicity
Of course, there are costs associated with resolving conflict too. In fact, some estimates suggest that companies and their workers spend several hours each week addressing different types of conflict. That effort amounts to billions and billions of dollars a year devoted to conflict resolution. Even so, most experts agree that those costs are a bargain compared to the risks associated with allowing serious conflicts to go unresolved.
What are the five main strategies for resolving conflict?
When it comes to strategies for resolving conflict, there's one well-recognized gold standard: the Thomas-Kilmann conflict management model. This model was developed in the 1970s by Kenneth W. Thomas and Ralph H. Kilmann and identified five different conflict management styles: avoidance, accommodation, compromise, competition, and collaboration. It also identified two simple types of behavior when it comes to conflict: assertiveness and cooperativeness.
Assertiveness simply measures the priority that a person places on satisfying their own concerns when a conflict is being managed. Cooperativeness assesses the degree to which that person seeks to satisfy the other person's concerns. These behavioral types are often impacted by the type of relationship each disputant has with the other. For example, someone who has a weak relationship with their conflict opponent might prioritize satisfying their own concerns and be less likely to cooperate.
With that in mind, let's take a look at each of those five strategies for resolving conflict to better understand how they work:
One strategy that's often employed in conflict resolution is to simply avoid the issue. This form of conflict resolution is the least assertive and the most uncooperative strategy, and is really nothing more than ignoring the problem in hopes that it simply goes away. On the surface, this technique may seem to be the opposite of resolution, but there are some very good reasons why it can sometimes be the best way to deal with certain types of conflict.
When should you use the avoidance strategy?
In a perfect world, every conflict could be resolved with some sort of compromise that satisfied everyone involved. In the real world, however, sometimes problems need to be ignored - if only for a time. Some conflicts are so minor that confrontation can actually cause more harm than avoiding the issue. There are also times when disputants are so emotional that avoidance can give everyone time to regain their composure and eventually work to resolve their issues in a more rational way.
Accommodation is another type of strategy that also involves abandoning assertiveness. With this strategy, however, you simply make peace by working to fully satisfy the other person's concerns. By cooperating with them fully, you eliminate the conflict entirely and can usually restore a harmonious working relationship. This technique can be especially useful when you want to maintain a good relationship with the person you're at odds with, but may not be viable if you cannot fully abandon your own concerns.
When should you use the accommodation strategy?
There will be times when accommodating another person's concerns and preferences may lead to the best solution for your team and the company. As noted, this type of approach may also be the best option when you know that continued conflict could damage important relationships. Still, it's important to be sure that your desire to accommodate does not lead to you setting aside vital concerns or being taken advantage of by more assertive personalities.
One good rule of thumb that you can use to determine whether an accommodation strategy is the best approach in any given situation is to ask yourself whether you can be satisfied with the choice. If the thought of giving in makes you unhappy or causes additional stress, you might want to reconsider your decision. However, if you realize that losing the fight really doesn't matter all that much, then accommodating the other person may be the best possible solution.
Compromise can offer the best of all worlds, since it involves both assertiveness and cooperation. When you work to find a viable compromise, you can often locate a middle ground between two conflicting sides that allows each person to walk away with some measure of victory. In reality, both sides will end up giving ground on some of their concerns as they seek that common middle ground, so both parties also lose. However, the compromise can be vital for ensuring that the resulting solution is at least somewhat acceptable to everyone involved.
The key to finding compromise is to focus on the benefits each side gains, while minimizing the things they each give up in the bargain. Executed properly, a compromise-focused strategy can be one of the quickest ways to resolve conflict. It can even be used to create short-term solutions to conflicts that may need to be addressed in other ways at some point in the future.
When should you use the compromise strategy?
Compromise can sometimes be the most dependable strategy for resolving conflicts between two assertive people with stark differences of opinion about their work. When those differences pose a risk to workplace harmony, productivity, and efficiency, there may not always be time to find a comprehensive solution that resolves the conflict. Reaching a suitable compromise may help to ease the differences while a more permanent solution is pursued.
Of course, compromise can also be invaluable when two colleagues place at least some value on their shared goal and their working relationship. For example, if Lionel and Steve have been productive team members for several years, they may be more likely to accept a compromise as a way to protect that relationship from harm.
One of the least effective strategies for conflict resolution relies on competition. This approach is usually employed by people who are focused on assertiveness to the exclusion of any sort of cooperation. Someone who focuses on competing will reject any attempts to compromise, collaborate, or accommodate, and will instead devote their energy to defending their position at all costs. For a competitor, there is only one acceptable outcome: they win, and the other side loses.
When should you use the competition strategy?
To be fair, there are times when the total assertiveness approach may be justified - but those times are rare and involve extreme circumstances. For example, if your building was on fire and someone on your team was trying to direct everyone to the wrong exit, you probably wouldn't want to humor them by accommodating their error. In most other instances, however, this overly assertive approach is more likely to generate additional conflict.
Collaboration is one of the most effective conflict resolution strategies and especially useful for finding solutions that address conflicts between two people with a strong and valued relationship. Unlike compromise, which requires both parties to give something up in exchange for a harmonious solution, collaboration relies on creatively identifying a solution that satisfies everyone's concerns. It requires both assertiveness and cooperation, and a desire to create a true “win-win” resolution.
When should you use the collaboration strategy?
Collaboration is best used in situations where:
The disputing parties have a desire to maintain strong relations with one another
There is no apparent right answer to the conflict and both sides have reasonable arguments to support their positions
A problem or challenge requires a new solution
Your search for a viable solution can benefit from multiple ideas, opinions, and proposals
Everyone is committed to achieving a solution that is satisfactory to all involved
While this can be the best conflict resolution strategy for ensuring a truly winning outcome, it can also be one of the most time-consuming approaches. Obviously, getting any two people to reach consensus on a given topic is not always as simple as it sounds. Nevertheless, collaboration works when there's trust between the parties, active listening, and enough time to work toward a great solution.
Tips to effectively use conflict resolution strategies
Of course, understanding the different types of strategies for resolving conflict is just the beginning. You also need to know how to effectively use those strategies, especially when mediating conflicts between others. The following tips can help to ensure that you use your conflict management skills to maximum effect:
Find the source of the conflict
As with any problem-solving effort, effective conflict management can only occur when you know the root cause of the dispute. Whether the source of the conflict involves a difference of opinion about a single issue or multiple concerns, you'll need to have a full understanding of the problem before you can begin to reach a resolution.
Employ active listening to identify concerns
After you've determined the nature of the conflict, use active listening skills to identify each disputant's individual concerns. What do the parties hope to achieve in this process? Which of their concerns are the most important to them and what would it take to satisfy those concerns?
Be alert to any potential barriers to resolution
As you gather information and listen to the parties, make sure that you work to identify any potential barriers that you'll need to overcome before you propose a solution. For example, if one of the parties signals resistance to a certain type of solution, take that into consideration as you go forward.
Decide which strategy will work
You should take every factor into consideration before choosing a resolution strategy. Each conflict will be different, of course, so pick the approach that offers the best chance of resolving the issue. Sometimes, compromise may be necessary. At other times, you may be able to negotiate a collaborative solution that enables everyone to win.
Identify a solution everyone can agree to
Once you have completed all those steps, you should propose your solution and ensure that everyone agrees to implement it. Talk about the steps each of them will need to take to fulfill their part of the strategy and let them know that you will be following up at a set date.
Follow up as necessary
Never just assume that conflicts are completely resolved. Instead, make a point of scheduling a follow-up meeting to ensure that the resolution is still being honored. Make any adjustments needed to keep everyone satisfied with the outcome.
When disputes happen within the workplace, they can create a whole host of problems for the companies and employees involved. By learning about the best strategies for resolving conflict and how to implement them in your own workplace, you can help to ensure that interpersonal challenges are quickly and effectively addressed before they become major concerns.
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