Whenever a group of people gathers to work toward a common goal, conflict is inevitable. Each employee is unique, and it’s this uniqueness that gives voice to differing opinions and ideas.
Unfortunately, there’s no one or consistently “right” way to handle conflict. Each situation is different and requires the appropriate response to prevent the issue from spiraling out of control.
When conflict arises, the most common human reaction, or ‘default’ reaction is to prove the other party wrong instead of trying to determine the root cause of the problem.
In this blog, we’ll go over 3 bias-free conflict resolution strategies that should help you diffuse tensions in the workplace.
Stop Avoiding Conflict
The first step is to acknowledge that within any group of people working together, conflict will eventually occur. Each manager or supervisor has a different way of dealing with conflict in the workplace. Unfortunately, the most common approach involves simply ignoring the issue altogether and letting those involved deal with the problem themselves. This approach produces less than desirable results.
Managers typically avoid addressing conflict amongst team members because they don’t have the tools or verbiage to help make things better. This is not a productive reaction to the situation and predictably results in having things escalate. Letting the issue drag on unaddressed will inevitably result in decreased productivity, low employee morale, and commonly leads to heightened confrontations that negatively impact the business as a whole.
Silence equals permission, and managers that refuse to acknowledge conflict often end up dealing with a hostile workplace lawsuit. This is such a travesty since the vast majority of these situations can be resolved by following some basic steps on conflict resolution.
According to Forbes, understanding the nature of conflict in the workplace and being comfortable in tackling it head-on is an essential skill set for successful managers.
Set the Ground Rules to Address Problems
When someone feels as though they’re being disrespected or harassed, they usually respond by threatening to quit, or even forewarn litigation for a hostile work environment. Such emotionally driven reactions ratchet up the tension and make it increasingly difficult to amiably resolve the situation. That is why it is imperative to address conflict as early as possible, before it escalates into a situation that is not salvageable.
It is critically important for the manager to focus on diffusing the emotions, and actively listen to all parties. It should be clearly communicated to your team that you expect everyone to be able to address concerns in a professional manner with the agreed upon goal that everyone can work together in a positive environment.
The ground rules need to be clearly outlined that there are to be no raised voices, and challenge everyone to address the situation in a calm, professional way, with no emotional outbursts. If you have a member of your team that is unable to do that, chances are they will continue to be an on-going source of friction and you should seriously consider terminating them as quickly as possible.
A terrific way to help people feel their concerns are being heard is to have the other person repeat back what they understand the primary issues are. Give everyone involved the opportunity to outline their issues, and then give the floor to the other people involved and have them reiterate what they have heard. This will go a long way towards coming to a resolution.
The Harvard Law School has an illuminating article on how to address conflict in the workplace.
Offer Constructive Suggestions
There are a myriad of conflicts that may arise when people work together. Internal conflicts can range from feeling disrespected, to having someone take credit for someone else’s work, to uneven workloads, to sexual harassment. Some issues are more black and white than others, but all issues will gain from having a respectful, open dialog addressing the problems.
So how do you tackle the situation without creating feelings of resentment and betrayal? The ultimate goal should be to have everyone feel that their concerns have been addressed, diffusing the situation.
An interesting fact is that when people have a problem and are able to address it and come up with a resolution, the team will actually gain from the experience, and will eventually feel more cohesive and bonded.
The role of a manager should be to allow everyone to share their concerns in a safe, non-confrontational environment. Often times there will be a clear solution, and then the issue is if the agitator is willing or able to change their behavior. After everyone has had a chance to speak their peace, offer the inciter the chance to share how he or she is willing to change their behavior. If they are unable or unwilling to clearly outline ways in which they will change their behavior, clearly outline for them what needs to change. Remember that egos often get involved and it is common for someone to feel defensive. Make a point to praise everyone involved, pointing out positive attributes and how they contribute to the team as a whole.
Focus on the benefit of resolving the issue and moving forward.
At this point the role of the manager is to monitor the situation and hold the provocateur accountable to sticking to their agreement to stop whatever behavior was causing the conflict. Be sure to periodically check in with the offended party, to make sure that they are feeling better with the situation. Make no mistake that no news is good news. Putting your head in the sand and just assuming that by not hearing anything everything is going great is a dangerous gamble. Many a manager has been surprised by an employee who quits or even worse files a hostile workplace suit because they were reluctant to check in with everyone to ensure that the conflict has truly been resolved.
According to an article published by Alvernia University, actively addressing employee concerns by managers leads to professional employee development, improved working relationships, and most importantly, overall job satisfaction and organizational growth.
Being able to hold employees accountable and addressing conflict are the top 2 factors in being an effective manager. Learning these skills early in your leadership capacity will benefit everyone in your team.
Everyone deserves to have a work environment that is pleasant and free of conflict. It is the responsibility of the team leader to ensure that you offer a respectful, professional work environment for all employees, regardless of their seniority or level within the company.
For those situations where you identify an employee that is not able to work well with others, replacing them as quickly as possible is critical to maintaining a positive company culture.
Keep in mind that the #1 reason why good employees leave their job is because of a negative work environment. When the problem employee is in a managerial role, he or she can literally have a negative impact on your entire company.
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Ann Zaslow-Rethaber is President of ISC and can be reached directly at 888-866-7276 or via e-mail at
Kim Garrison is ISC’s Team Lead for Texas Banking Recruiters, and can be reached via direct dial at 800-270-3974 or email at