Back Close Menu

Welcome to Terryberry where we transform employee engagement with one powerful platform. Get started today!

Conflict Management: 8 Steps for an Effective Conflict Resolution Process

April 11, 2024

Conflict is a natural and inevitable part of the workplace. Knowing how to successfully guide conflict resolution supports more effective decision-making and healthy relationships among co-workers.

Let's look at the different types of conflict you might need to help navigate, which conflict management style is appropriate for a variety of scenarios, and tips to help you become a top-notch negotiator in the workplace.


Types of Workplace Conflict

Workplace conflict takes on a variety of forms, depending on who's involved and what the dispute is over. Here are a few common circumstances you may encounter.


Interpersonal conflict: This conflict occurs between two or more parties because of differences in personality, values, or communication style.

It may manifest as verbal arguments, passive-aggressive behavior, and workplace cliques. It can cause an increase in absenteeism and turnover and have a negative impact on productivity.


Role conflict: Coworkers may experience role conflict when their roles are unclear, overlapping, or poorly defined.

The popular sitcom "The Office" showcases role conflict when two leading characters are named co-managers of the company. As the two grapple with how to divvy up responsibility, another employee describes the tension: “It doesn’t take a genius to know that any organization thrives when it has two leaders. Go ahead, name a country that doesn’t have two presidents. A boat that sets sail without two captains. Where would Catholicism be without the Popes?”


Task conflict: Task conflict arises when team members disagree about how to complete a specific assignment or project. A little bit of task conflict can lead to new ideas, but too much task conflict will hinder progress while colleagues argue about the best way to move forward.


Cultural conflict: Employees from different generations, ethnicities, or regions may experience cultural conflict in the workplace. This may look like differences in communication style, contrasting attitudes toward work, and stereotypes and biases.

Four generations are currently in the workforce - Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X, and Baby Boomers - and members of each generation tend to have a different approach to communication, work/life boundaries, and how work should align with their personal values.


RELATED: DEI Initiatives: What They Are, Examples, & Tips for Implementing


Resource conflict: A scarcity of resources may result in resource conflicts as coworkers compete for budget, time, manpower, or equipment. This may be as small as disagreements over who can use the meeting room at a certain time, or involve multiple departments vying for a larger budget during the next fiscal year.


Constructive vs Destructive Conflict

While it carries a negative connotation, conflict isn't always a bad thing.

Constructive conflict often leads to positive outcomes including strengthened relationships, personal growth for those involved, improvements in organizational culture, and, of course, resolution for the issue at hand.

Destructive conflict, however, doesn't have such a happy ending. It often results in damaged relationships, a loss of trust, poor job satisfaction, and a toxic work environment filled with resentment and hostility.

In an ideal world, all conflict would be constructive, strengthening co-worker relationships and fostering organizational change that drives productivity. While you can't control how your employees are going to react when they're involved in a dispute, you can proactively encourage a positive environment that prioritizes collaboration over confrontation.

Set ground rules before you begin conflict resolution to encourage healthy discourse between disagreeing coworkers, especially if anyone is feeling hostile.


Conflict Management Styles

Dr. Ralph Kilmann, a leading expert on conflict management, identified five methods of behavior that may be adopted when people are trying to work through a disagreement. These are commonly known as the five conflict management styles.

Kilmann asserts that during the conflict resolution process, an individual's behavior involves two dimensions:

  1. Assertiveness: An individual's desire to satisfy their concerns.
  2. Cooperativeness: A person's willingness to work toward a solution that satisfies the other person's concerns.

Each conflict management style has its place when you're trying to manage disputes among colleagues, and talented leaders know when to utilize each of the styles to encourage resolution.


1. Collaborating

Collaborating is often seen as the gold standard of workplace conflict resolution. This style is both assertive and cooperative. It involves digging into the problem and coming to a solution that all parties are happy with.

Because collaborating means that neither party is 'giving in,' the resolution often involves new, high-quality ideas that result in a win-win solution. Colleagues who collaborate to manage conflict often experience stronger relationships and a deeper commitment to the solution.

Of all the conflict management styles, however, collaborating is typically the most time-consuming. It works best when you have the time to brainstorm and evaluate new solutions, and it is only possible when everyone involved has a strong commitment to working toward the most ideal solution instead of simply aiming to get their way.


2. Compromising

A compromising conflict management style is somewhat assertive and somewhat cooperative. It addresses conflict head-on, similar to collaborating, but doesn't go into it in as much depth. One or both parties may have to make sacrifices in order to reach a resolution.

Compromising is ideal when you need to quickly reach a conclusion that feels fair to all parties involved. It may also be the best style when you need a stop-gap until you can agree on a better solution for a complex issue.

If colleagues have a healthy relationship, an occasional compromise isn't a problem; if people struggle to get along, though, it may be hard to reach a compromise without further damaging the relationship.


3. Competing

Competing is less about resolving conflict and more about getting your own way. This assertive approach is uncooperative, refusing to consider the viewpoints of others.

While a competing style isn't typically considered a healthy or effective way to resolve conflict, there may be instances where it's necessary. For instance, if a decision involves something ethically ambiguous, you may need to insist on the decision that best aligns with your organization's mission and values. The competing style may also be helpful when other methods of addressing conflict have failed.

Consistently using this conflict management style, however, can cause strained relationships among coworkers. It can also prevent you from coming to the most ideal decision because all viewpoints are not being considered.


4. Avoiding

An avoiding style is both unassertive and uncooperative - it evades conflict altogether. It often takes the form of postponing a discussion or sidestepping the conversation, allowing for a cool-down period until everyone is in a better headspace to work for the best solution.

Ignoring conflict may be a valid conflict resolution tactic when it's not an appropriate time to address the issue or the problem is trivial compared to the attention it's being given.

However, when used to manage conflict indefinitely, this style can lead to unresolved conflict that induces feelings of resentment and irritation. Because avoiding conflict means that none of the parties involved get what they want, it leads to a lose-lose scenario where no one is satisfied.


5. Accommodating

This conflict management style is unassertive and highly cooperative. It typically involves sacrifice from one party. This style can be seen when someone is selflessly generous or yields to someone else's preference even though they would prefer not to. People may also choose to be accommodating in order to build social capital; i.e., 'I let you have this one and sometime in the future you can do me a favor.'

If you're involved with an issue that you don't care much about, you may accommodate the other party to quickly reach a resolution so you can focus on moving forward. Over time, though, a consistently accommodating style can cause others to lose respect for you and even exploit what they believe to be a weakness.

When you choose to resolve conflict by being accommodating, a key choice is to concede graciously. Don't complain about giving in. It can also help to explain why you are choosing to accommodate the other party so people don't take your behavior as a sign that you simply don't care.


Steps of an Effective Conflict Resolution Process

Essayist Joseph Joubert wrote, “The aim of argument and of discussion, should not be victory, but progress.”

A well-designed conflict resolution process isn't about determining who's right and who's wrong. The goal should be to determine the best solution to the disagreement while preserving workplace relationships. Approaching conflict management with the intent to move everyone forward results in constructive, not destructive, conflict.

Below is what typically needs to happen to make this a reality.


1. Identify the Conflict

Conflict resolution can't begin until you recognize that a conflict exists, and employees may not always approach management or HR about an issue. Keep an eye out for behavioral changes that may indicate discord or changes such as increased absenteeism, decreased employee engagement, or decreased productivity.


2. Clarify the Main Issue

Before you jump into conflict resolution, it's important to understand what's going on.

This investigative portion of the process often requires more than speaking to the people involved in the disagreement. It may be helpful to interview other parties who aren't directly involved in the dispute or review related documents.

If you're lucky, you may reach a solution simply by clarifying the root cause of the disagreement and correcting a simple misunderstanding.


3. Establish Common Ground

This step in the conflict resolution process sets the precedent for whether employees will be engaging in a constructive or destructive conflict.

Everyone involved should have a mutual understanding of your goal, which is typically twofold:

  1. Resolve this specific issue with a mutually satisfactory solution.
  2. Develop stronger conflict resolution skills among those involved to prevent future conflicts.

This is also a good time for setting ground rules. What expectations do you have as you move forward in conflict resolution? Examples of ground rules include:

  • No blaming or personal attacks.
  • Maintain confidentiality and avoid spreading gossip about the disagreement among other departments.
  • Be honest and truthful in your communication.
  • Focus on the issue, not the person.

4. Generate Solutions

Brainstorm potential solutions with the conflicting parties. This often begins with letting each party propose what they think is the ideal solution.

If you have the time, and all parties involved are willing to put in more effort, this stage of conflict resolution is when you may discover new solutions that everyone can agree to - those win-win solutions that come from intentional collaboration.


5. Evaluate the Options

Outline the potential strengths and weaknesses of each suggestion. What are the potential implications, both short-term and long-term? How does each solution align with your organization's goals and values?


6. Negotiate

At this point, all of the parties sitting through the conflict management process may again vie for what they believe is the ideal resolution. While your goal is a win-win outcome that satisfies everyone, you may need to encourage flexibility and the willingness to make concessions.


7. Implementation of the Solution

Once everyone has landed on a solution, document the agreed-upon terms. Even if it feels pedantic, take the time to clarify and record details such as the anticipated timeline, individual responsibilities, and any necessary follow-up actions.

Assign tasks and allocate resources to ensure the solution is implemented effectively. Follow up with all parties and monitor progress as long as you think it's needed.


8. Find Closure

Closure allows you to rebuild relationships and restore employee morale once a solution has been reached. This is the time to acknowledge and validate emotions that might have been brought up during the conflict management process and focus on future learning and growth,

Moving forward, you can mitigate future conflict by teaching employees conflict resolution skills that help them handle disagreements on their own so they can quickly resolve issues with their peers.


Essential Conflict Management Skills

Strong conflict-resolution skills enable you to navigate disagreements, facilitate constructive dialogue, and promote positive outcomes. They also function as preventative strategies so that you can address small issues quickly before they snowball into a drawn-out battle between multiple departments.

Each of these conflict management skills can be developed with practice. You may lean on some more than others depending on which conflict management style you tend to gravitate toward, but all are essential.


Active Listening

Often listed first in a discussion about managing conflict, active listening is an essential skill for anyone involved in a conflict or acting as a neutral third party to help others work through a disagreement.

Listening to understand-- not just to respond-- helps you develop a better understanding of how others are feeling.

You can listen actively by--

  • observing body language and nonverbal cues like eye contact and tone of voice.
  • requesting clarification and paraphrasing throughout the conversation.
  • staying focused on the conversation, instead of trying to discretely check your email.

As a negotiator, modeling active listening encourages everyone involved to treat the other party with the same level of respect during the conflict management process.


Emotional Intelligence

Forbes recently named emotional intelligence as the number one leadership skill for 2024. Your EQ has a significant impact on your ability to manage conflicts in a constructive manner

A high EQ involves being aware of everyone's emotions: both your own and the emotions of others. During conflict resolution, it helps you tune in to how each party is feeling and tailor your response in moments of tension.

When you're managing conflicts among colleagues, EQ may look like:

  • an effective communication style that helps everyone feel heard.
  • modeling emotional regulation when you're feeling frustrated, such as taking a pause before you respond.
  • demonstrating empathy toward disheartened employees.


Negotiation Skills

Most of the time, managing conflict requires you to find a middle ground that is acceptable to everyone involved. With strong negotiation skills, you may be able to help everyone agree on a totally different solution than they brought to the table or realize that a specific course of action really will be most beneficial.


Assertiveness and self-confidence

There's no way to make everyone happy all the time. Sometimes, effective conflict resolution involves making an unpopular decision so everyone can move on.

As a negotiator, you also need to be comfortable in providing disciplinary action when the situation merits it, remaining assured of your decision even if you receive pushback.


What Happens Next?

Conflict may be a natural result of people working together, but that doesn't make it welcome, especially when destructive conflict damages relationships and slows productivity.

When employees are engaged in encouraging and recognizing one another, the threshold for petty disagreements becomes much higher. People are more invested in working collaboratively to find a solution, most often without the intervention of a neutral third party.

Terryberry's employee recognition platform is here to help you create an empathetic and emotionally healthy workplace where conflict resolution is rarely required. We'd love to tell you more - contact us today!