Conflict Resolution at Work: 9 Expert-Backed Strategies for a Peaceful Workplace
Managers waste four hours of the week resolving employee disagreements.
Conflict resolution in the workplace is undoubtedly a timesuck. But it's essential because unresolved conflict can result in lost productivity, absenteeism, lawsuits, and strike action.
Our guide includes:
- 9 HR conflict resolution strategies you can use to pinpoint disagreements, then decide whether to embrace them, nip them in the bud, or resolve their issues.
- Insights from experts who describe their preferred conflict management techniques.
- 8 arguments for why you need a conflict resolution HR policy.
- A template to support your conflict resolution.
😟 What is conflict resolution at work?
Conflict resolution is the process of resolving disagreements between two or more parties. This involves understanding and addressing why workplace conflicts arise, finding alternative solutions that are satisfactory to all involved parties, and creating an environment where everyone feels heard.
Managers spend double the time dealing with workplace conflict compared to fifteen years ago, the report Conflict at Work determines that managers now waste four hours of the week resolving employee disagreement.
Examples of conflicts in the workplace
- Interpersonal issues: Personality clashes or creative differences;
- Team disagreements: Disputes arise between team members or interdepartmentally due to workloads or working styles;
- Discrimination: The most severe form of conflict, including prejudice and microaggressions;
- Performance management: Where employees don't meet expectations;
- Clashes with management: When direct reports jar with their supervisors;
- Pay disputes: If employees don't believe they receive adequate compensation;
- Labor-management relationships: When unions and management can't agree on terms, potentially leading to strikes.
🕵️♂️ What is HR's role in conflict resolution?
While management should always be involved in conflict resolution, Human Resources should oversee the entire process as a mediator.
- To focus on finding common ground between both or all parties.
- To suggest possible solutions.
- To ensure all parties stick to a professional resolution process.
- To be a neutral third party.
- To encourage employees to solve the issue themselves.
- To establish a safe and non-confrontational environment.
"Adopt a focus on informal resolution such as mediation, which gives the employees a chance to talk about their needs and the impact the conflict has had on them in a psychologically safe environment."
👂 9 Strategies for managing and resolving conflicts in the workplace
To save management time, reduce employee turnover, and avoid the risk of potential legal issues, companies can follow these tried-and-tested strategies to resolve conflicts or even prevent problems from escalating in the first place.
1. Leaders must lead by example
If employees see their leaders warring with each other, they'll be more likely to model this behavior in their interactions.
Leaders must take the initiative and demonstrate how to manage disagreements respectfully, using effective workplace conflict resolution and communication skills.
Managers can also act as coaches, arming their teams with the tools they need to improve effective communication and openly address issues that crop up.
2. Nip workplace conflict in the bud
Never let conflicts fester, as this could negatively impact your entire team.
Gemma Bromfield recommends addressing conflicts as early as possible:
"Early resolution is best. Yes, these conversations can be nerve-wracking, but by engaging with employees at the earliest stage and actively listening to concerns, the chance of employees engaging in a more holistic dispute resolution, such as mediation, is more viable. Mediation can successfully repair seemingly unworkable relationships, but surprisingly is often used in a reactive way after significant damage has already been done."
💡 Tip: Train your managers and employees to spot and report when conflicts exist.
Help them understand that gaining early support will improve the chance of reaching a positive outcome.
3. Open dialogue
Employees must feel free to express their ideas, opinions, and disagreements respectfully.
"Rather than assuming that everyone will get along with each other, debates and confrontations form the foundations of our work. Instead of trying to suppress them, we've created an outlet. Whenever two or more people find themselves in conflict, we set aside time for an open discussion where both parties can fight it out, as we do in court.
Anyone with some time at hand can be part of the jury. The debate even invites others to take sides and take part. This way, everyone knows what's next when there are differences of opinion. Instead of giving in to negativity, they prepare for a heated debate where they put forth their best. The approach has not only helped us resolve situations without the negativity spilling over but has also helped us build a great team at debating!"
Similarly, Carolyn Quainton, Founder and Director of Understood behavioral training organization, believes open dialogue is healthy, even in confrontation:
"If managed correctly, workplace conflict can have positive outcomes and serve as a "jumping off" point for better decision-making and understanding. A key part of this is shifting the narrative from "I-centric" to "we-centric" conversations."
💡 Tip: Offer communication training to your employees to improve their emotional intelligence and maximize the value of these open discussions. Always ensure HR is present to mediate.
4. Active listening
Open dialogue is about more than just speaking. Actively listening to the other party and understanding their point of view is a key skill all employees must continuously develop.
"As simple as it may sound, active listening is a powerful tool that enables individuals to hear and understand each other's perspectives. One should give the speaker their undivided attention, avoid interrupting, and engage in asking clarifying questions rather than making assumptions. Active listening helps individuals to acknowledge the underlying feelings and emotions at play, which are critical in resolving conflicts effectively."
Cody Candee, CEO of storage company Bounce, recommends a listen-and-repeat strategy as part of active listening. He believes this technique effectively slows down a volatile exchange and turns down the temperature during workplace conflict resolution.
"Conflict is often caused by misconstruing information we receive and allowing our emotions to take over. It is easy to let emotion override our ability to understand what is being asked of a valid critique. Our natural inclination to defend our position can cloud our perceptions.
By listening patiently to the information and repeating it to the individual we conflict with, we make it known that we hear their concern and are attempting to understand them. This slows down the rate of the exchange, allows for reflection, and quickly diffuses a volatile situation."
5. Use a four-step model
Some HR teams prefer to set ground rules using a framework to resolve conflict. This approach can be beneficial when formalizing the process or if your HR team is new to handling workplace conflict resolution.
- S = Stories: Ensure each person tells their story. Let those involved choose who goes first. Rephrase what that first person says, ask the next person to share their story as if you had heard nothing, rephrase it, and continue until you have listened to and understood everyone.
- T = Topics: Working together, make one list of everything you need to address. The people involved should choose the order for discussion.
- O = Options: Ask each person to provide multiple options for each topic area to resolve the problem.
- P = Plan: Have them create a plan detailing who will do what, how, and by when. Ask them how they will manage accountability.
The key to this strategy is allowing each person to hear and understand them. Even better, involve each party in creating a solution and action plan.
6. Take all conflicts seriously
Don't belittle any conflict, even if it seems related to "blaming" or personal criticism.
"I have seen leaders in workplaces ignore conflicts they think are trivial. Keep in mind that what appears to be a minor issue to you can be a major issue for someone else. You can only resolve the issue when you first acknowledge it. Denying the existence of the problem will delay its resolution.”
To address all conflicts proactively:
- Discuss the issue with both parties to find the actual reason behind the conflict.
- Encourage employees from all ranks and departments to raise concerns with their managers.
- Collecting frequent feedback and booking regular 1:1 meetings with managers will enable everyone to speak their mind, regardless of how trivial the issue appears.
7. Accommodate new perspectives
Forward-thinking organizations embrace employees from multiple backgrounds with different values and viewpoints.
In a Forbes article, career and leadership coach, Caroline Castrillon even argues that allowing your employees to disagree can be productive, as it can:
- Foster new ideas.
- Enable teams to reach better solutions.
- Acknowledge different perspectives.
- Increase trust.
- Build commitment.
"Everyone has a unique background, beliefs, and values that can shape how they view conflict and how it should be resolved. To reach an effective resolution, allow the parties involved to share their perspectives in an open and positive environment.
Focus on areas of agreement and understanding rather than on areas of disagreement or misunderstanding. Not only will this help to build mutual understanding, but it can also help foster positive relationships and create a collaborative atmosphere in the workplace."
As an example of how to find common ground, clinical psychologist Dr. Kevin Polk met with a group of 20 people in Washington, D.C., to discuss the highly contentious topic of gun control.
Half of the group was for and half against gun control. Rather than dig deep into why each group felt their stance was correct, he asked them to describe the background behind their viewpoint. The group agreed that safety was their top concern, and Polk shifted the conversation to discuss how to make society safer.
8. Embrace human emotions
Employees are people and will bring their emotions to the workplace. This is something that should be embraced and respected, not feared.
Focus on understanding each other's perspectives and situations. Explore the "why" behind emotions to build empathy rather than allowing emotions to take over and fuel unhealthy competition.
Muzaffar Garakhanli, Head of Digital Marketing at Planly, also suggests injecting humor into tense situations:"While humor should be used sensibly and ethically, it can effectively minimize tension and eliminate barriers between people. People can see each other as fellow humans with shared experiences and viewpoints rather than as enemies by finding humor in their differences."
🚨 Take care using humor as a tool. The aim is always to diffuse rather than minimize.
9. Document each conflict
Treat each conflict as a learning opportunity by documenting the following:
- the background to the conflict;
- the viewpoints of the parties involved;
- who was involved in the resolution process;
- the steps required to resolve workplace conflict;
- any progress or further challenges since the resolution.
💡 Tip: Recording this information could prevent similar conflicts from re-emerging and will also demonstrate which steps or techniques work effectively and which to shelve.
💡 8 Reasons why you need a conflict resolution HR policy
Establish clear expectations and guidelines in a formal conflict resolution policy to present to onboarding employees and make available to all staff within your standard company policies.
Do this to:
1. Prevent conflicts
The existence of a conflict resolution policy can be enough to motivate employees to solve issues before they escalate into full-blown conflict.
Ideally, team members will choose to openly consider each others' perspectives and resolve workplace conflict peacefully.
2. Promote transparency
Establishing a transparent process reassures employees that Human Resources and leadership will take their conflict seriously and honestly. It sets a standard for treating employees and gives them the confidence to tackle conflicts head-on.
3. Foster a healthy work environment
Your policy will establish clear boundaries and expectations, allowing employees to feel safe in the workplace. It ensures everyone understands how specific behaviors impact others and how to handle conflict appropriately.
In a survey of 1,000 remote workers, 80% admitted experiencing conflict in their roles. Ensure your policy includes information on managing disputes in distributed teams to ensure positive collaboration, regardless of geography.
4. Enable a positive company culture
Company culture is at the heart of how your employees interact with each other. Your policy should provide the necessary training and resources to:
- Help employees understand how to address conflicts appropriately.
- Develop better problem-solving skills as a team.
- Support diverse perspectives across the company.
5. Hone leadership skills
Implementing an HR conflict resolution policy supports leaders in developing critical skills, such as:
- active listening;
➡️ Learn more in our article on examples of leadership skills in the wild.
6. Protect the company's reputation
Resolving workplace conflict reduces the risk of legal action and protects the company from bad press.
🚨 When HR teams cannot resolve issues internally, employees may take matters into their own hands, harming the business.
7. Boost employee performance
A healthy exchange of ideas has many positive outcomes for a business. But employees constantly warring with each other can quickly lower productivity and hinder progress.
A comprehensive HR conflict resolution policy will ensure that trivial arguments do not bog down employees.
8. Attract and retain talent
Employees who feel mistreated due to a conflict may look for employment elsewhere.
A clear, well-defined conflict resolution policy will retain talent, as employees feel secure in knowing their employer respects their rights and will handle any issues fairly.
The ability to attract and retain talent is also integral to your overarching employer branding strategy.
🚨 More than two-thirds of candidates would reject a job offer from a company with a negative employer brand reputation, so don't be known as the organization famed for in-fighting.
📝 Conflict resolution HR policy template
Ready to resolve conflict in your workplace? Lean on our HR policy template to support workers on both sides of the disagreement and ensure everyone finds the process fair.
Our template includes key guidelines on the following:
- communication and collaboration
- conflict identification and reporting
- conflict resolution process steps
- conflict documenting
- resolution follow-up
- training and support
- policy enforcement
➡️ Download our conflict resolution template today.
➡️ Turn conflict into a healthy discussion with Zavvy
Zavvy offers a suite of tools to help you resolve conflict in the workplace, including the following solutions:
- Learning management: Enable your employees to develop key competencies, such as communication and active listening skills, using our AI-powered training programs.
- Training library: Select from 1,000s courses from dozens of platforms and learn at your own pace.
- 1:1s: Align managers and employees with structured agendas where both parties can discuss issues and explore resolution options.
- Employee engagement surveys: Improve employee morale by spotting any potential conflict before it escalates.
- Connection programs: Forge positive relationships by ensuring no team or individual feels siloed.
📅 Ready to equip your teams with the skills, knowledge, and tools they need to manage disagreements effectively? Discover the power of Zavvy and book your demo today!