Effective conflict handling is crucial to any business, since if handled poorly, it can lead to ingrained cultural issues that can have a knock-on effect to staff retention, quality of work and the development of cynical attitudes.
In this guide, we’ll talk you through everything you need to know about handling conflict in the workplace and the common pitfalls to avoid.
A massive 85 per cent of us experience conflict at some stage of our careers, making it worthwhile to know how to best handle conflict in the workplace.
Unmanaged conflicts cost both managers and employees, with 25 per cent of staff calling in sick or staying away from work to avoid conflict. Also, 43 per cent of all employees don’t think their managers deal with conflicts as well as they should – suggesting there’s a perennial problem that affects all sectors, industries and company sizes.
What is conflict?
At its most basic, conflict describes any interaction between parties who differ in interests, perceptions or preferences. At work, conflict can take many forms and is an inevitable part of working life.
It might be a problem between peers, an individual with a complaint or even a conflict between a manager and an employee.
Whatever the conflict, if handled incorrectly, they can often lead to entrenched cultural problems that can cause all sorts of issues, such as divided teams, increased staff turnover, ‘blame’ culture and the formation of cliques.
However, having conflict in the workplace isn’t always a bad thing. Moderate levels of conflict channelled correctly can promote a number of benefits – even promoting positive change in the workplace. If handled correctly, it can help staff to be more pioneering, improve performance and develop effective teams.
The TKI method of conflict resolution
One popular method of handling conflict healthily is the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI). This model has been a leader in conflict resolution assessment for over thirty years.
Commonly used by human resources and organisational development teams, it opens discussions on difficult issues and encourages learning on how to handle certain conflicts. It’s designed to measure an employee’s behaviour in conflict situations.
The TKI offers five modes of how an individual should respond in conflict situations, dependent on how they have answered the assessment. These are:
- Competing: Assertive and uncooperative.
When an individual pursues his/her own concerns at other people’s expense.
- Accommodating: Unassertive and cooperative.
When an individual neglects his/her own concerns to satisfy concerns of others.
- Avoiding: Unassertive and uncooperative.
When an individual neither pursues his/her own concerns or others’ concerns.
- Collaborating: Assertive and cooperative.
When an individual attempts to find a solution that satisfies everyone’s concerns.
- Compromising: Moderate in assertiveness and cooperativeness.
When an individual finds a solution by giving up some aspect of what one or both parties want.
It’s an online assessment with 30 questions - individuals are personally scored by how they answer each question. Here’s an example of how the results could be displayed:
The individual in this scenario is 99 per cent ‘collaborating’ – which means they want to find a solution to suit everyone’s needs. To help with their conflict-handling, the TKI would interpret all their scores and suggest ways on when to use each style and the questions to ask when in conflicting situations. Everyone is capable of using all five approaches and no-one can use just one single style when dealing with conflict.
However, some people use different styles better than others and therefore tend to lean on them – due to their character or practice. This can be much less effective than using the full range of styles therefore, it’s advised to use a variety of modes to develop conflict-handling techniques.
Common pitfalls in handling conflict
Regardless of what measure is used to resolve conflict, there are many pitfalls for managers to avoid:
- Lack of communication: Conflict is often the result of miscommunication between parties and it’s evident that accurate communication it’s needed to resolve conflicts. Negative patterns of communication can often lead to greater frustration and therefore, more conflicts. To overcome this, managers and employees can discuss their backgrounds and perceptions to help clarify everyone’s expectations and understand other people’s points of view.
- Unclear policies and procedures: Having inappropriate guidelines from management on what to do in certain situations can lead to unresolved conflicts. Managers are responsible to apply consistent and appropriate policies and procedures to the organisation. Directors can issue clear guidelines about the problem in question – giving the conflicting parties rules on how to resolve an issue rather than disagreeing over it.
- Capability of management: Equipping managers to handle conflict without getting too involved with the situation can sometimes be tricky. Managers have to be fair and consistent to tackle conflicts effectively, otherwise more conflicts could erupt. In order to resolve issues, managers have to have sound people skills and fully understand the concerns at hand before taking action.
- Inconsistency: Perceived preferential treatment of staff members can be a recipe for conflict. Inconsistency from managers can bring a sense of unfairness or injustice to the workplace - making it difficult for employees to work together and having conflicts arise.
- Having a short-term fix: Resolving a conflict by making a quick fix is the easiest thing to do, however, resist the temptation to employ a knee-jerk solutions - it could come back to bite you in the long run. For example, if a manager is setting targets with an employee, but the employee expresses an issue with how had they are to achieve. The manager then dismisses their concerns straight away without hearing any explanation, which therefore results in the employee not getting on board and not hitting their targets. While it’s tempting to paper over the cracks, it’s worth investing time and effort in channeling good conflict and avoiding negative confrontations.
It’s worth understanding how to resolve conflicting issues in the workplace. It encourages staff to use a range of conflict-handling styles in order to achieve the best outcome, benefiting both employees and managers.
Knowing the basics of how to handle conflict at work (and more importantly, how not to) can essentially improve working relationships, organisational culture and business performance.
Hopefully, we’ve managed to shed some light on handling conflict but if you’ve got any questions about the topics above (or anything training-related) - don’t hesitate to get in touch via Twitter or LinkedIn.
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