Keeping Quarrels Contained: Proactive Conflict Resolution

Erica Fener

One of the biggest issues human resources executives face is managing workplace conflict. A 2011 Employee Development Systems (EDS) survey found that 98 percent of all HR executives are responsible for dealing with conflict at work. Eight in ten of these human resource professionals have seen an employee resign while 77 percent have experienced heightened absence due to workplace conflict. Businesses with significant conflict also suffer from greater employee turnover, substantial unproductive use of company time, and higher legal expenses.

A few of the most common underlying causes of workplace conflict include weak leadership, clashes in personality or values, poor communication, ego wars, lack of honesty and stress. While many companies have grievance policies in place, they do not take proactive conflict resolution seriously. Therefore, employees do not have a conflict management system with multiple entry points and options to resolve their conflicts. In turn, many managers do not have the skills to prevent issues effectively, leaving employees feeling as though no one is listening to them.

Instead of waiting for conflicts to blow up and cause huge issues in the workplace, or conducting investigations that don’t actually resolve conflicts, it is best practice to implement proactive conflict resolution. It's important to remember that good things can come from conflicts when they are handled appropriately.

Stages of conflict resolution

There are three main stages of proactive conflict resolution. HR managers and employees alike must learn and be comfortable with all three stages in order to deal with conflict effectively.

  1. Identify the conflict early. Ask yourself the following questions: What type of conflict is it? What is at stake in this conflict? What are the key underlying issues? What needs to happen next?
  2. Contain the conflict. Both parties must recognize their communication styles, emotions and limitations and must listen to each other to develop an understanding. Deal with the tensions at hand through intentional, timely and direct communication to re-establish relationships. Use assertive, clear language.
  3. Manage the conflict. Set a time frame to have the difficult conversation. Go into the dialogue with fully outlined issues, an open mind, and the belief that something constructive will come from it. Whenever possible, look for a solution that is pleasing to both parties.

When it comes time to contain or manage a conflict, consider the following approaches.

Proactive conflict resolution strategies

  1. Use an informal or low-key manner. Simply using an informal tone and calm approach can keep a conflict from escalating.
  2. Use role reversal techniques. Role reversal may seem elementary or out of place in a professional work environment, but there’s a reason that it is such a popular technique. Challenge each party to consider the opposing point of view's validity.
  3. Find common ground. People who are in conflict often have trouble finding anything in common because they are so hung up on their differences. Employees are more likely to start working toward a solution when they realize that they have something in common.
  4. Focus on the underlying issues. Instead of pointing fingers and focusing on what the other person is doing wrong, focus on the heart of the matter. What is most important to each party? What are their needs and preferences?
  5. Emphasize professionalism and objectivity. Even the smartest, most educated people can lose themselves in petty, immature arguing in a matter of minutes. As an HR staff member, you can request that both parties maintain professionalism and objectivity throughout a conversation.
  6. Reinforce self-esteem. No one wins a conflict when someone walks away feeling like a loser or as if his or her feelings don't matter. Regardless of the issue, neither party should end a discussion with compromised self-esteem.
  7. Consider using a third party or objective mediator. As a last resort when other measures have failed, it may be beneficial to bring in a third party to settle a conflict. This individual can serve as an objective mediator who can lead the parties in finding a solution that is satisfactory for everyone.

Erica L. Fener, Ph.D., is Vice President, Strategic Growth at Progressus Therapy, a leading provider of occupational therapy jobs and early intervention careers.